The Way to Better Tackling? '6 Seconds of Hell'
Oct. 1, 2012
By Gregg Bell - UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - The key to the Huskies' Saturday night at No. 2 Oregon is the same, curiously sounding key that led the Huskies to their throttling of eighth-ranked Stanford last week.
"Six Seconds of Hell."
That's the name Washington's new, always revved-up defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi has for the tackling drill through which he's put his defensive linemen during practices. One defender lines up across the line of scrimmage from not one, not two, but three D-linemen playing the roles of blockers. The ball is three or four yards behind those blockers.
The mission: The 300-poundish defensive lineman must beat those all three of those similarly 300-poundish blockers and get to the ball within 6 seconds.
Mission accomplished, against Stanford, anyway. UW made five tackles for losses and the Cardinal lost 21 yards on running plays. Stanford gained just 65 total yards rushing last week, after romping for 446 on the ground against Washington 11 months earlier.
In general when a Tree got hit, a Tree immediately fell. That was the biggest reason the Huskies upset the Cardinal 17-13 last Thursday, and why UW (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) is ranked 23rd entering Saturday's huge test at Oregon (5-0, 2-0) at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN, the Washington IMG College radio network and here on GoHuskies.com with another exclusive, real-time game chat).
Good thing defensive tackle Danny Shelton likes "6 Seconds of Hell."
"That is a pretty crazy drill. It is one of my favorite drills, too," the 6-foot-1, 317-pound Shelton said Monday, smiling mischievously.
He's likely to get much more of the same this week while preparing for the zooming Ducks. They, like Stanford, believe in running the ball first. But Oregon does it in a far more supersonic way than the Cardinal, without huddles, with misdirection, plays run within 8 seconds of the last one ending, and just plain speed.
For UW, it's like going from a moped to a Maserati in one week.
Shedding blockers and tackling done as quickly as it is surely is the name of this week's game for the Huskies.
"We started it in spring. We later improved it in fall camp. But I feel that since we emphasized `6 Seconds of Hell' during Stanford week, that drill just hopped in Coach's mind. And we just went for it," Shelton said.
"We have players who are speedy guys. I felt it really challenged their manhood. We had to just get down and grind it. It was pretty tough.
"I don't know, Coach Lupoi is going to have something up his sleeve for this week," he added, smiling knowingly.
When coach Steve Sarkisian brought in Lupoi and three other new assistants on defense headed by former Tennessee coordinator Justin Wilcox in January, he knew improved tackling was as important as an improved mindset in transforming a defense that was Washington's main liability the last couple seasons.
Since spring ball in April, the Huskies have wacked each other around in practices more physical than in any of the previous three years under Sarkisian. That showed up against Stanford on the other side of the ball, as well. Bishop Sankey ran behind the blocks of four, first-year starters on UW's offensive line for a career-high 144 yards against the bigger Cardinal defense.
"We've made it a point to have really physical practices," Sarkisian said. "We felt like that was something we needed to do from a team standpoint, if we were going to be able to defend the run, to run the football the way we were capable of, and then openly tackle that way, you have to practice it. You can't just expect to show up on Saturdays and become a really good tackling team, a physical football team and have good pad level.
"All of those things have been a point of emphasis since training camp. They became an even bigger point of emphasis of ours during the bye week (before the Stanford game), when we stressed it, we emphasized it, we continued to practice it."
The results: One month into the season, Washington is second to Arizona State in the Pac-12 in total defense. The Huskies are allowing 315 yards per game. Over 13 games last season they allowed an average of 453 yards per contest.
"It's like anything. If you want to be a good free throw shooter, you've got to practice free throws. If you want to be a good tackling football team, you have to practice that stuff," Sarkisian said. "We've done it, and maybe at the expense of getting a few more bumps and bruises and a few guys getting banged up. But the end result, I think we're better for it as a football team."
As the coach alludes to there, a team needs enough quality players deep into the roster before it can afford to bang each other around and risk injury to starters - of which UW has had more than a dozen already this season.
Only now, in his fourth season and after three full recruiting years, does Sarkisian have the depth to practice and thus play the way he's wanted to all along.
They have to keep doing it this week. The Ducks thrive on one-on-one matchups with their speedy ball carriers in space. One missed tackle in the open field against Oregon often equals one more touchdown allowed.
The Ducks' Kenjon Barner is second in the Pac-12 and 10th in the nation averaging 121 yards rushing per game. And Sarkisian said redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, second in the conference in passing efficiency, brings a different challenge to the UW defense than previous Oregon quarterbacks.
"He's fast. He's faster than the last few guys they've had. Go all the way back to Dennis Dixon and then Masoli, and Thomas last year. He's much faster than those guys," Sarkisian said, noting Mariota's "ability to create plays with his legs -- not necessarily by design on runs, which he can do, but when he drops back and things aren't there."
Sounds like the Shelton and the Huskies' "6 Seconds of Hell" may need to be even faster this week -- as with everything else having to do with Oregon, which has raced past UW eight consecutive times.
Then again, as Sarkisian said, these aren't the same Huskies.
"I like our depth going into this week, I'll say that," Sarkisian said. "When you look at the three previous years we played them they were very hard-fought first halves, even into the third quarter and then they've pulled away from us late in the third quarter, fourth quarter."
Sarkisian noted last November at Husky Stadium it was a 24-17 game with 9 minutes left in the third quarter before the Ducks won 34-17. In 2010 in Eugene Oregon led 18-13 in the third quarter before wearing down UW in a 53-16 win. In 2009 in Seattle, Oregon turned a 15-6 lead at half into a 43-19 victory.
"So the games have been there and then they have pulled away," he said. "I would like to think that through our recruiting we have some pretty good depth in place to where we can minimize them trying to pull away there late third, early fourth quarter."
INSIDE THE DAWGS: As for being ranked for the first time since before losing at Stanford last October, Sarkisian basically shrugged. "Again, rankings to me, until the end it's a perception of your program, you know? It doesn't necessarily mean that's who you are, good, bad or anything in-between. It's the perception of what people think of you. ... I'm sure that's exciting for our fans and all that. For us, it's never even been brought up. ... It's about focusing on the stuff that we can control, and that's our ability to prepare for a really good opponent Saturday." ... Sarkisian announced DT Lawrence Lagafuaina will miss the remainder of the season due to injury. The 317-pound redshirt sophomore from Aiea, Hawai'i, made five tackles in the first three games. He played in eight of 13 games last season. ... This week's depth chart listed freshman Kendyl Taylor as a tailback, after he got his first career carries against Stanford. Sarkisian said Taylor is both a tailback and a wide receiver. ... Saturday's forecast in Eugene: Sunny, zero percent chance of rain, a high of 75 and temperatures getting into the 50s during the game.