I was recently told that when interacting with someone, you have six seconds to gain their attention enough for them to continue to listen. I’ve been racking my brain trying to decide what my first six seconds would be since I was approached by the AFCA about writing this article. I know most of the people who read these articles are already ball coaches, but for the new guys in the profession, who are eagerly reading every stitch of material they can get their hands on, hopefully this will help. To the veterans that have been in the profession for a long time, sorry, the majority of this will not be for you. However, you can skip on down to the philosophy/drill section and hopefully get some tips and advice. As a young coach in the profession, or at least that is what I’m going to keep telling myself for a few more years, I can still relate and empathize with the G.A., analyst, quality control, student-worker, volunteer, etc. I’ll jump right in with some advice to help the young guy out. I will then delve right into what I believe makes a great defensive back and what makes a great defensive backs coach. I’m hoping to hit you with bullet points that will help you regardless of what stage of the journey you are on.
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Young guys who have the dream of one day being a BTBC (big time ball coach) will be referenced a lot in this article. When I was starting out as a recruiting intern that was the goal of all the young guys on staff. We all talked about it and tell each other that one day we would all be BTBC’s. Little did I know what being a BTBC entailed. I am almost embarrassed by how naive I was about the coaching profession when I made the call to Todd Graham to get my foot in the door. I had no idea what level I wanted to coach, I just knew I wanted to coach ball. After I had decided to take him up on his offer of being a recruiting intern, I called him to ask what to wear to work. It was summer in Arizona, so he said, “just wear shorts and a shirt in the summer and slacks in the office when school starts.” I remember calling my wife and telling her, “Coach said we can wear shorts. I’m just going to wear solid black Jordan shorts, some Airmax or Jordans and a t-shirt.” She encouraged me with, “babe I think you should wear khaki shorts and a collared shirt on the first day until you get the feel of the place.” Luckily for me, I took her advice. Shorts in this profession are NOT your favorite hoop shorts. I tell you this story to show you how young, naïve and clueless I was about this profession. No matter where you are on the journey, it can happen. I’m certain most of you are a lot further ahead than I was seven years ago.
Head Down and Work! Such a simple phrase that is over-said and underused. What does this phrase even mean? What does it look like? How will they notice me? When is it best to chime in? These are all questions that every young guy asks themselves or each other numerous times. To me, it means to be a taskmaster. I was fortunate to be a grad assistant alongside some rockstar grad assistants. I mean these guys were masters on PowerPoint, Excel, laminating machines, Word, Vizio, etc. You name it and they could get it done. I, on the other hand, had no idea how to do any of those things. So the first things I had to do was humble myself and ask for help. You cannot have your head down and become a taskmaster if you do not know how to complete the task. Don’t be too prideful to ask for help. This is important because most coaches I have worked with care about the presentation of your work. The days of chicken scratching on notepads are long gone. I tried early to hand a coach a run-pass breakdown with tally marks. You just don’t know what you don’t know. I learned quickly that becoming a master of all things Microsoft (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Vizio) was crucial for getting your work noticed and approved. Charts, graphs, and BIG RED BOLD words make it easier for people to remember. Coaches are some of the most observant guys on the face of the earth when it comes to anything football. They notice which young guys are really working and becoming taskmasters. They will also see who is pawning a lot of work off on other guys and getting out of the office early. Everyone in the building knows the guys who put in the time and the guys who waste time. Be a guy who puts in the time and good things will happen.
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When is the best time to chime in? is one of the toughest questions for a young coach. We all want everyone to know that we fully grasp the defense/offense and that we are brilliant and could totally be a coordinator already, right? At least that was me when I first got in the profession. I was eager to show the world that I did not just know how to coach a corner but could get a 3-technique aligned and teach him how to power step, play with a base and defeat a block. However, that was not needed or wanted in the room I sat in. Every room is different, but I would say the majority of them are similar. Chime in when asked a question directly and use every opportunity you are asked to prove yourself. No need to go over the top, but let them know that you are A.) paying attention and B.) know your stuff and could be of help. I’ve noticed when you do that you seem to get asked more questions. I have been fortunate to work with brilliant young support staff and have seen them have a major influence on game plans and meetings because they earned it. The Head Down and Work mentality pays off.
DEFENSIVE BACK PHILOSOPHY
Simplicity – I like to keep it simple and not have too many rules we hang our hats on. I’m a believer that there are 4 things that each DB must be able to do in order to play and play at a high level. I used to have so many different things that I would try and emphasize and get the guys to remember, just because I wanted to be a guru. Quickly, I found out that the only guy in the room that remembered all of those things was me. The harsh reality was all of the extra stuff was unnecessary and pointless. If the guys in your room cannot tell you what is important to you then that means you are not emphasizing it enough or you have too much.
1) DO YOUR JOB
each and every snap, every member of the secondary has a specific job. The main thing for each member of the secondary to do is HIS job. Another simple phrase but a task that is hard to get accomplished. The majority of DBs made huge plays in high school by doing their job and somebody else’s. Or by roaming and going to make a play. I have to tell my guys, “that will not work here.” The first thing a player is to do is prove that his knowledge of the playbook is sound and that he is trustworthy to do the job. I always tell my guys, “Do your job, but do your job better than anyone else.”
2) BE TOUGH (Mentally & Physically)
I like to think of myself as an old school coach. I love the physical aspect of the game of football. Every DB that plays in our secondary will be tough. There is no such thing as a cover corner or just a high/middle of field safety for me. You must be able to check every box. We will not always play the game clean but we will make it a physical/tough game. Tough is not only the physical aspect of the game but the mental aspect as well. DBs are always in the line of fire. They have to have more mental toughness than just about any position on the field. There will be good and bad plays throughout every game and everyone in the stadium will see what the DB is doing. You have to be mentally tough enough to reload and be ready for the next snap.
3) RELENTLESS EFFORT
I tell the guys daily in our room that “EFFORT is the Price of Admission”. If a DB is not willing to run and pursue the ball with maximum effort, they are not willing to play. Each snap, they have a choice to go all out to and through the whistle. If they decide not to do it, then I as their coach, decide not to let them practice/ play. It is a DBs job when a play breaks, to pursue like crazy and give our defense an opportunity to line up and play one more snap.
4) PLAYMAKERS/ M.A.D.
(Make A Difference) plays are so crucial. I have to coach guys up about situational football. It is important that the secondary always knows the situation and that they are always hunting up an opportunity to be a playmaker. If the defense has the tackle secure then our guys are going in and taking a shot on goal. The game is about the ball, so as much as possible we are talking about disrupting the ball and getting the ball back to the offense. Playmakers will find a way to get it done. Coach guys up for those M.A.D. moments and plays.
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My philosophy when it comes to drills and the stuff that we practice-
I admit that sometimes I enjoy watching the different footwork coaches have guys doing. The various ladder drills and elaborate footwork drills. However, if you ever come to Memphis and watch us practice, you will only see things that I deem are necessary for playing the game. I’m a believer that your E.D.D’s should be abstracted football movements that happen just about every play throughout the course of a game. Our E.D.D’s are just that. They are something that we do every single day. If I’m not at practice, I would fully expect my guys to be able to get through the first five minutes by themselves, knowing exactly what we do, and the order that we do them.
- BACKPEDAL– a lot of people are going away from practicing backpedaling or ever playing in a pedal but I still believe that being able to pedal is beneficial.
- PEDAL, LEFT/RIGHT PULL– Pedal and then flip hips open for the deep ball. Transition and get going full speed while staying on the line. We do this drill zone and man turn on alternating days.
- TIGHT WEAVE– we are still working weave pedal and keeping our guys square. This is crucial if you are going to play off and pedal because the majority of the time the WR is going to stem his release. You need to learn how to maintain leverage by working a weave pedal.
- PEDAL 45– we work our backpedal and then transition to the post or 45-degree angle. Every few days we will do a PEDAL 90 break. Where we do the same thing but break 90 instead of 45 degrees.
- PEDAL SPEED TURN– we work our backpedal, burst 45, and then speed turn for corner route. Do this for more than just the post corner route DBs end up out of position and have to get back in position fast as possible more times than any DB or DB coach would like to admit.
- W-DRILL– We work it every day. Angle pedals and non-rhythmic breaks. Focus points are how fast can you transition and always remember you will go where your toe is pointed. No round-offs or wasted steps.
Those 6 drills are the non-negotiable drills at our practices. Of course, we incorporate other drills that are specific to what we are trying to accomplish that day or that week. Make sure your everyday drills are relevant to the type of defense you are running and the positions that your guys end up in most of the time.
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I hope this article helps you out no matter what step of the ladder you are on. We are all blessed to be able to be a part of this great game. If I can ever do anything to help you out, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I look forward to being a part of this great profession for many years to come.
TJ Rushing, a former Super Bowl champion with the Indianapolis Colts, began his coaching career with the Tigers in 2018. Before his time at Memphis, Rushing spent four of the last five seasons on the coaching staff at Arizona State after a seven-year professional football career. Prior to his second stint at Arizona State, Rushing spent the 2015 season as a defensive assistant for Stanford. Rushing worked primarily with the cornerbacks and mentored All-Pac-12 performer Ronnie Harris while helping Stanford win the Pac-12 title, a Rose Bowl victory, and finishing No. 3 in both national polls. Rushing was a part of an Indianapolis Colts team that won Super Bowl XLI and AFC Championships in 2006 and 2009. He collected 1,290 return yards and a punt return for a touchdown with the Colts from 2006-2009. He also spent part of the 2010 season with the Detroit Lions.
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