Vt. HS footballers tackling challenge of tackling again

  • Hartford football player Brandon Potter is battered by his teammates while running a drill during practice in White River Junction, Vt., on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Hartford football head coach Matt Trombly talks to his players at the start of their practice on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hartford football player Evan Lynds reacts to a light rain falling during practice on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, in White River Junction, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2021 9:26:13 PM
Modified: 8/19/2021 9:41:54 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — The first hit that Windsor High senior offensive and defensive lineman Dalton Clifford laid on a teammate in practice this week made his motivation for this season clear.

After playing two-hand touch in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns, the Vermont Principals Association is back to tackle football. As practices for the 2021 season began Monday, football players around the state strapped up pads for the first time in a long time. Many could hardly contain their excitement to get back to the real version of their sport, and teams exhibited high energy levels early on as players could hit each other again.

So when Clifford experienced that first contact in practice, it felt special. And it made him realize this is his last ride with Windsor.

“It was a great feeling, because it made me think about (how) I’m in my senior year. This is it,” Clifford said. “Starting to hear the contact again made me think about contact football again and coming up through the system as a peewee and junior high player.”

There’s always some level of rust when a new season begins, but the return to full contact has required some more adjustment from the players. Aside from any mini-camps teams may have held during the summer, upperclassmen are going back to something they haven’t done at the high school level in almost two years. Underclassmen are getting their first tastes of high school tackle football.

Woodstock senior running back and safety Corey Wood said the upperclassmen have led the way at the Wasps’ early practices, even for the underclassmen who played touch last year. He said training with high intensity has helped shake off rust.

“During practice, everyone’s just putting 130% effort in,” Wood said. “You just gotta do the small things easily so you can do the hard things a lot easier. It just takes a little bit of time. The upperclassmen pretty much got it set, and we’re trying to bring the younger guys up with us.”

Hartford High head coach and offensive coordinator Matt Trombly has a different view on re-adapting to the tackle game. He knows his kids will have to get used to it again, but he doesn’t expect it to take long.

“They’re getting used to being back in pads again,” Trombly said. “A little bit different running around in pants, with mouth guards in, and all suited up. But it’s kind of like riding a bike. You never really forget. So we jumped right back into it. It was good.”

Coaches themselves have also had to alter things in practice a bit early on. Trombly said that’s normal, as the art and technique of tackling evolves to make the game safer and as USA Football releases new guidelines and information on doing so. He said, during the team’s summer camp, they spent a lot of time teaching tackling basics and continued that into the first few days of practice this week. Given the number of underclassmen who’d never played full-contact football in high school, along with the upperclassmen who played a different version of the game for a year since they last put on pads, it was necessary.

Hartford is not the only school going back to tackling fundamentals. Clifford said that’s been a priority at Windsor this week. He said they go through these things every year, but that there’s been an added emphasis on doing things correctly so far.

“We had to re-watch some of the videos and start from square one on how to form tackle and doing the safe way,” Clifford said. “And with a young group that we have, there’s a lot of new players they need to learn it anyway.”

Going back to tackle football impacts practices beyond players making contact again. It impacts the actual game.

During the seven-on-seven touch game, offensive and defensive linemen had to play wide receiver. Teams had to completely change their offensive strategies, as running plays were not allowed. Those linemen had to get used to their normal positions again, both in technique and mentality.

The change back to the full-contact game impacts both sides of the ball. And opinions are split on whether offense or defense has the bigger adjustment.

“On offense, you could be physical within the rules and restrictions of football. But on defense, my coach always calls it smashmouth football, where it’s kind of go out there and fight for 48 minutes,” Clifford said. “So I think defense has had a bigger change from last year to this year.”

Not so at Hartford.

“We’re a downhill running game type of group. We make our living running the ball. Getting out there and blocking again and trying to get back to the tradition that we have of running the ball, that’s definitely the big stress point,” Trombly said. “Playing defense is one thing that can kind of get picked up. But getting back to what we do and how we earn our living, it’s gonna take a couple more steps.”

Seth Tow can be contacted at stow@vnews.com.

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