It is becoming a rare sight on football practice fields in these days of throw-it-around offenses and fears of losing star players to injury, but not at LaFayette High School.
The Ramblers are in full pads, actually hitting each other. On one side are the blocking drills, complete with old-style sled. On the other are guys lining up one on one in tackling drills. Do it right, you move on. Do it wrong and you do it again.
"People don't do it because they're no fun," LaFayette coach Tab Gable said. "I don't know a kid that likes them, but I also don't know a team that can win without them."
Gable, a prep and college coach for more than three decades, firmly believes blocking and tackling are the building blocks of football, and he's not alone in believing those once-mandatory fundamental elements are lacking at all levels of the sport.
"I can't understand why some coaches seem to ignore them," said Gable, who has the Ramblers off to a 4-1 start. "When I was coaching at Shorter College, we would get kids that we had to basically teach them from scratch how to block and tackle. You even see it every Sunday in the NFL -- guys trying to knock people down instead of wrapping up.
"I don't know why it's happened, but players and teams just aren't fundamentally sound as they once were."
Theories vary, according to several of the Chattanooga area's most successful coaches -- from spread offenses causing teams to be more finesse-oriented, to fear of injury, to a lack of fundamental coaching in youth football, to younger coaches more concerned with out-scheming an opponent than outworking them.
"I guess that's where I'm at a big advantage. I can't scheme a thing," Polk County coach Derrick Davis said with a laugh. "Our big halftime adjustment is to tell them to play a little harder. To me, football is still the same as when I played. It's all about blocking and tackling.
"We work a lot on them here because if we couldn't do those two things, we couldn't win. In 12 years of coaching, [I've found that] if you can't block and tackle the right way, you're wasting your time."
Philosophies are changing, though, as the sport gets more technical. Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis has noticed a trend when he attends offseason clinics or interviews young coaches for possible hires. Very seldom does the talk get around to blocking and tackling.
"When I interview a young coach, all they want to talk about are schemes," Mariakis said. "When I go to clinics that's all anyone talks about. Now schemes are important, but it all still boils down to blocking and tackling, the fundamentals of the game. It's easy to get caught up in the scheming, but at this level in the region we compete in, you're not going to out-coach a lot of people."
Tim James has been around football his entire life, literally. Raymond James, his father, was a long-successful coach who preached the importance of fundamentals, so it's no surprise that the son has his Heritage Generals focus on proper technique in all of their drills. James believes the reason for the dropoff in solid technique is twofold: elaborate offensive schemes and the difference in kids as they grow up in today's video game world.
"Schemes are just so much more complex that tackling -- old-school, stick-your-face-in-there tackling -- doesn't happen anymore because most of the game is played in space," James said. "The giddy-up-and-go offenses, as I like to call them, are just not suited to fundamentals. The importance of blocking and tackling hasn't changed -- it's just different.
"Also, there is less contact in practices because kids are more prone to injury these days. When I was growing up we were always walking or riding bikes every day. Our moms would have to make us come inside. We all played backyard football, where you were physical. We didn't have video games or smart phones. Kids today are bigger, stronger and faster than we ever thought about being, but they just aren't as active."
Grant Reynolds agreed that there's been a change in philosophy over the years as far as practice contact goes, but the Boyd-Buchanan coach believes contact is a necessity and if injuries happen, they just happen.
"It's in the back of your mind, but you can't worry about that," he said Tuesday. "To be the physical team we want to be, we have to practice the live blocking and tackling. Today is a prime example. We'll spend a session just on tackling and focus on form and technique. With so much tackling being done in space now, we work a lot on taking the proper angles to tackle."
The Calhoun Yellow Jackets have won 10 consecutive region championships and have made four appearances in Georgia's Class AA championship game during that time. Head coach Hal Lamb, like James, is from a coaching family and has stressed from day one the importance of a good, basic fundamental approach.
But it doesn't start with Lamb's Jackets. In Calhoun, the middle school and recreational programs are being taught the same as the prep team is. Many high school programs have their feeder schools run similar offensive and defensive schemes, but Lamb has taken it even further in Calhoun. Each year he and his coaches visit the youth programs and work with the coaches to teach them the proper way to coach fundamentals.
It's a method that's paid off handsomely for Lamb, who now gets players already sound in the fundamentals. Those kids can then spend more time learning the complex Calhoun schemes. Even though the Jackets run a balanced spread offense, there isn't a more physical team in the area.
"Around here I like to say it takes great heart speed to be a great blocker and tackler, and with us that starts in the rec leagues," Lamb said. "We teach them a good stance and the proper way to block and tackle. Those things are tough, but the key is to find a way to make it fun for them and they will learn the right way. That was my first priority, to get into the youth programs, and it's a huge part of what we do here.
"It all starts there. It takes a lot of hard work, but if your team doesn't have a passion for blocking and tackling, it won't be consistently successful."
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...