Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Clinic: A Series on the Endicott Gulls Defence - DL Skills and Drills

Jason Scott has just completed his first season as the Defensive Line coach for the Endicott College Gulls, during which the Blue and Green finished 10-1 and won the program's first ECAC Bowl. The Gulls had the best rushing defense in the conference, and 10th best in the nation, surrendering - on average - only 87 rushing yards per game. They were also the the only team in the NEFC who kept opposition offenses to under 1000 total yards for the season.
Before heading to Massachussetts, Coach Scott was the Head Coach of the Loughborough University Aces, who he led to a 46-6-1 regular season record over his six years in charge. Those seasons also included three conference titles, and four divisional championships.

He also was instrumental in the rise of the Tamworth Phoenix, as he masterminded their defense for four years - from their inaugral season in 2007 to their 2010 Division 1 championship. Over the course of their first three seasons in the league, he helped coordinate a stifling defense which was responsible for over 50 turnovers, and shut-out offenses in 14 of their 39 fixtures.
Scott was born and raised in Preston, Lancashire. He studied for a year in Canada, before moving onto Loughborough University where he attained a degree in Sports and Exercise Science and a masters in Coaching Studies.

I’d like to thank the editors of dblcoverage for asking me to contribute to their clinics section of their website – it’s an honour to be asked, and to follow the likes of Coach Callan and Coach Worsell is a daunting task indeed.

Throughout my time coaching, I’ve always been more of a ‘defensive guy’ – I love the physicality and aggression of football, and how you can turn a game with an outstanding Defensive play. I’m currently reading the Rex Ryan autobiography, and he goes into depth about how he looks for players who can make deliver a huge hit – the tackle that makes everyone wince, and the play that gets everyone fired up and hungry for more. Plays like that can turn the tide, and ensures that Offensive Players are always looking over their shoulders... Wondering where the next explosive hit is coming from.

I completely buy into that philosophy – just because you play on ‘defense’ it doesn’t mean you can’t ATTACK... I’ve always coached an aggressive style, making sure that we have players who WANT to make a play, and who are seeking out the next opportunity to force a turnover, make a tackle for a loss, or find a way to completely change the momentum of the game, and take the wind out of the opposition’s sails...

The Endicott Gulls Defensive Line
For the past six months, I’ve been very privileged and fortunate to be working with the Endicott Gulls (Beverly, Ma) Defensive Line. In that time, I’ve coached some very talented, hard working athletes, and we – collectively – have reaped the rewards of our diligence and industry.

The Gull defense was rarely out of the national statistical rankings for both rush defense, and total defense. Indeed, the Gulls topped these categories in Conference play, as the Blue and Green went 10-1 winning the ECAC bowl. The DL was honoured in the post season, with two players being named to the NEFC All Conference 1st Team, whilst Kevin Eagan – our stand-out Defensive End  being named ECAC and NEFC Defensive Player of the Year.

Scheme and Technique
We play out of a 30 front, with Defensive Linemen head-up on the Offensive Tackles (4 tech) and on the Offensive Center (0 tech). A huge part of our success is due to the aggressive nature of our front, as we force all five Offensive Linemen to account for the three slanting, stunting Defensive Linemen. It is their job – on every play – to be relentless, active and nasty, making a nuisance for the Offensive Line and Scheme.

Due to the fact that we play head-up, we don’t want the linemen to give away which way they are slanting, so we will always play from a balanced stance – four points of contact, with our feet only having a slight heel-to-toe stagger. This enables us to be balanced, and step either way, without compromising our form and technique (fig 1)

Fig 1: A good balanced 4 Point Stance has a slight heel-toe stagger. The player should always be on the tips of his fingers, the hips square and the back flat.

We want to be aggressive, so a lot of the time we will focus on leg and hip explosion, and using our arms to ensure we do our job as effectively as possible. We will practice almost every day a week, and in those sessions the Defensive Line will get a large amount of Individual Time to work on technique alone – this allows a great foundation for the scheme to build off. Whilst you only may have a short amount of time a week, these fundamentals can be adjusted and tailored for your own needs.

Stance and Start
We will run our stance and start drills every practice – and we’ll always do it first. We’re looking for hip explosion, leg drive and active hands and arms. There are several drills we run, and we’ll always develop them with the same routine.
1)      6 Point Channel
2)      4 Point Channel
3)      2 Point Channel
4)      4 Point Slant & Angle

We’ll set out five tackle bags (these can be dummies, cones or bins – whatever you have available), and give them for four channels to go down. Throughout their time in the ‘channel’ it has to be full speed, with added emphasis on ‘get up and go!’

At this stage we don’t use a ball or snap-count. The emphasis is on coaching them up and getting their body in a good, strong body position. The coach will stand opposite, and just give the players a “ready, go” signal (fig 2)

Fig 2: The set-up for the stance and start drills – players should drive and press for the length of the bags. This can also be done with a multi-player chute to ensure hips are low.

The ‘6 Point Channel’ is designed to improve hip flexibility and that initial drive step, because the players are on all fours (the 6 points referred to are their toes, knees and hands), they have to pop their hips and step hard to get any sort of power. An important coaching point is to make sure that the players knees are coming straight up and out – there’s a tendency for younger, less experienced players to either cock their leg and swing it round to stand up, or to rotate their hips. The drive step should come straight forward, whilst the opposite arm is thrown forward. As soon as we have done four with the left leg, we’ll do four with the right, and then run the same drill with the four point stance.

The ‘2 Point Channel’ isolates the drive arm and leg – the players get in their (4 point) stance, and then lift their right leg and left arm, so they are balancing on two points of contact. On the mark, they will then throw their left arm down and thrust their right leg through, whilst driving off on their contact foot and up with their down hand (fig 3)

Fig 3: The Two Point Drill: The diagram on the left shows the starting position – opposite hand and leg up, whilst the diagram on the right shows the movement on the signal – the ‘up’ leg drives through, and the ‘up’ arm is thrown back. The picture on the far left shows the technique in game situation.

Finally, we’ll finish with the Slant and Angle Drill, with the players now assuming their locations on the bags – Defensive Ends will be head-up on the end backs (replicating the Offensive Tackles) and the Nose Tackles will be head-up on the middle bag. Again, the players should be in the ‘perfect 4-point stance’ a slight heel-toe stagger, up on their fingers with square hips and a flat back.

The players will be given a verbal signal – so they know whether to go left or go right, this should be repeated by everyone – a communicative, verbal unit is a confident, intimidating unit! Upon getting this signal the player will drive in that direction, with a short, powerful step, keeping their hips low, and ripping through with their ‘away arm’. The recovery step should be back up-field – almost behind where the Offensive Lineman’s foot would be (this is deliberate – this ‘banana’ step stops a slow Offensive lineman retreating). The ripping arm should finish high, and there should be an aggressive follow-through with their arms (fig 4)

Fig 4: Slant and Angle: The picture on the left is the starting position – note the form and stance. On the mark (this could be verbal or visual) the player will drive step and rip through as shown in the middle picture. The final picture (on the right) shows the follow through and direction of the ‘banana step’.

To emphasise the importance of the ‘rip’, we would often run this drill one-by-one. I would stand to the opposite side of the slant, and drop a tennis ball –as soon as I let go of the ball, the Defensive Lineman would fire out, and attempt to grab the ball after it bounces. This ensures that the hips stay low and the aggressive ripping motion is underneath where the blocker’s arm would set up – they have to finish this motion high by kissing their bicep!

Another useful drill we use for this motion is what I call ‘the wet towel’ drill (fig 5). Place two towels on the ground, right in front of where the Defensive lineman is stepping. On the signal, the player drive steps and grabs the towel from the floor, finishing high. The towels don’t have to be wet – we call it by that name as we left them out one night before it rained!

Fig 5: The Wet Towel Drill: Once again, we start on the left with a good strong stance, this player opts for a three point stance, but because of his fantastic form and low hands it’s absolutely acceptable. Find something that the players are comfortable with. As he starts his short, powerful drive step, he reaches low and grabs the towel before ripping through and finishing high.

Pass Rush Moves
T o be able to effectively rush the passer is a huge part of Defensive Line play. Our scheme is predominantly zone-coverage, so the pressure is on the three or four players we blitz to get to the Quarterback.

The concepts are exactly the same – the Stance and Start drills are exactly that – the same for every play, regardless of whether the Offense wants to run or pass the ball, our stance and start – the genesis of each and every play is exactly the same. We want to be consistent in everything we do – whether that be how we line up or the way we step; the Offensive Line cannot have any clues to how we’re about to attack them, nor should they be tipped off about the way we’re going.

Assuming that we’ve got a good first step and stance, and we’re ripping low (shown in the diagrams and examples above), we can follow through with some pass-rush moves.

Again, we always start with basics – slowly at first, and build up the speed. I’ll just focus on the rip technique today, but feel free to contact me if you have any more questions on other moves.

Two players will pair up, and align hip-to-hip. The pass-rusher will insert his arm underneath the player who is simulating the Offensive Lineman. He should give a good amount of lean into his blocker, but not so far that he loses balance (this differs from position to position – NT’s won’t lean as far, but will be tighter into the blocker). His hand should be high and his hips flexed. On the signal, the pass-rusher will pop his hips, shoot his arm high (finishing the rip move), and rotate around the Offensive Lineman – finishing with a disengage move at the end. We’ll also use a up-turned bin for the blocker to balance on, and to give him a landmark to work with (fig 6).

This is a close-quarters move, with emphasis on the lean and the rip. In terms of disengaging from this position, I would prefer that the pass rusher flips his hips and the apex of the move. This is done by bringing the ripping arm down hard and applying pressure to the back of the blockers upper-arm/elbow with his other hand. This flips the hips and helps the disengage move.

Fig 6: One-on-one Rip and Disengage (with bin). The players start locked up, as if the Defensive Lineman has taken a good positive drive step. The pass rusher should lean into his opponent, and rip high, disengaging by ripping down through the shoulder and flipping the hips.

 Personally, I love to use ROPE DRILLS to simulate pass rushing – it gives us a clear path to the quarterback and the nature of the drill allows great versatility. I heartily recommend that you get down to your local DIY store and buy a length of rubber tubing, piping or rope – your Defensive Line will thank you for it!

We use a variant on the above drill on game-days – forming a large semi-circular shape with the rope, and sending two players off from either end, meeting in the middle. It really promotes a good lean and helps with the disengage move.

There are a seemingly limitless amount of drills you can run – dependant on your time and resources – just make sure you plan your session, and remember the fundamentals. I’m going to focus on one drill here, but you can add and remove components as you wish.

Fig 7: An Example of a Multi Faceted Rope Drill: The players take off from a visual clue from the coach – the dropping of a tennis ball (1), ripping through the ball they lean into the pipe (2). At the QB’s set point, the DL engage and disengage from a RB’s block (3), before chasing down the QB who had scrambled up field (4)

The above example is one such rope drill we run – these are generally quick paced, enabling great reps and a good work out. The coach stands just inside the rope, holding a ball at shoulder height (again a tennis ball works well). As soon as the ball is dropped, the pass rusher takes off and looks to scoop the ball up as it bounces – in a very similar fashion to the wet towel drill – as he rips, he’ll lean into the rope, and get to where the QB’s drop would be, where he’s met by a RB (this can be a player on a shield or a pop up bag). They should shed that player to the outside, and then chase the QB down, ‘round the tyre (fig 7)

The Tyre is also a great tool for pass-rush skills – it keeps the hands and shoulders low, and promotes really good lean. One GREAT drill that emphasises all these, and also keeps players thinking and moving is the figure-8 drill. The ‘rip and bend’ that is needed here is a VITAL component of the pass rush, and it’s imperative that we can bend at high speed. If we repeat this over and over again, we promote extreme lean and good hip flexibility.

Here, we want long strides, and fast movement around the tyres, working a figure 8 movement, whilst they have a team-mate coming the other way. At the point they meet (the center of the ‘8’) the pass rusher in front will dip and rip under the back shoulder of his team-mate coming the other way (fig 8)

Fig 8: The Figure-8 Drill (with tyres) – this can be done with cones, ropes, hoops or whatever you have available to you. Two-players at a time are in the drill – the first player sets off, stays low through the first tyre, and leans into the second,  at the ‘top’ of the 8 a second player begins and does exactly the same – if the timing is right, the second player should clear the cross-section just before his team mate gets there. The first player should lean, drop his shoulder, and rip underneath the second players back, and hug the tyre, finishing back inside. 

I’ve only run a small section of our drills here today, but have focused on the KEY components of a sound technique. Remember – you can’t build a big, beautiful mansion without strong foundations; don’t worry about the window dressing if your fundamentals are all wrong. Make sure that your Defensive Line plays safe, and play low. Ensure that they don’t confuse ‘low hips’ for ‘bended back’, and always make sure that they can see what they’re doing at all times – their heads should be up and their necks bulled.

I’ve worked with an array of Defensive Linemen at all levels – youth, university and senior level in the UK, and now colligate level in the US, and the best players had the same thing in common – they worked hard, played fast, were physical and relentless from the ball being snapped until the whistle is blown.

Take time to go over the finer points, and try and have someone film your individual sessions – this sort of feedback is invaluable, not just for the players, but to also give yourself some great feedback to your coaching self-review.

Have a great season, F.B.P.H!

The Endicott College Gulls Senior Defensive Linemen (L-R); Andrew Zani, Kevin Eagan and Chris Gogolos.


  1. Great article, precise, in depth and passionate. Thanks for taking the time to do it and congratulations to coach Scott on his continued success.

    J Stevenson
    Derby Braves

  2. Awesome read. Look forward to seeing the rest of the series.

  3. Great job Jason, best wishes for your continuned success...


  4. Enjoyed this very much. Great to see UK coaches doing well in US. Here's to continued success.

    Def Coordinator
    NTU Renegades

  5. good read

    m kelly
    tuc cougars

  6. Good job Jase!

  7. Congratulations Mr Scott, interesting article well done; I'd be interested to know what the biggest transition challenges were both from a football and a social side, for example did you feel accepted quickly, did they respect your credentials etc?

  8. Thanks for everyone's kind comments - if you have any specific questions about what we do, I'd be happy to answer them in a future blog (coachjmscott@gmail.com)

    In terms of 'how I approach' things might be different, so I'd be happy to go through concepts, schemes and techniques, as opposed to how 'I coach' - that's something that has to be unique to an individual. I'm still working out who I am as a coach, and I'm always learning, adapting and growing.

    Mark, my transition was relatively smooth - having worked with EC during pre-season the previous year - I knew a lot of the guys, and they knew 'what I was about'. This, in itself, is huge - I spent the first few weeks trying to be something I'm not... I then remembered that I had coached before, and I've been relatively successful, so I relaxed and started coaching 'my way'.

    My credentials were never questioned, and I was accepted very quickly, just by being myself, working hard and not trying to be someone I'm not.


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