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Kevin Kelley & Pulaski Part II: Brief Padless Practices, No Meetings on Game Day, Blitz Every Down

Part II of Kevin Kelley and his evidence-based approach to high school football optimization.

Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

I hope you enjoyed Part I.

So what else is this lunatic doing?  Holding short practices with no hitting, avoiding meetings on game day and blitzing like a maniac on defense to force turnovers, quick scores or 3 and outs.  They also take player input on tactics and will use them if the players will present data and proof for its successful use.

And yes, the Pulaski coaches don't believe in whistles at practice.  They think they're silly and demeaning.  For levity, they say the word "whistle" when they wish for a play to conclude.

Kelley was inspired to eschew full-pads in-season after a talk with John Gagliardi:

(Editor’s Note: John Gagliardi, who retired in 2012, was the head football coach at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., where he amassed a career record of 489-138-11 over a 59-year period from 1953 to 2012.) I met Coach Gagliardi one year at an AFCA Convention luncheon. I sat down at an open table and there was this man sitting there by himself. We began chatting and then I quickly realized it was John Gagliardi. Once I realized who I was sitting with, I started asking him a bunch of questions about how he does things within his program. And it was an amazing experience, as this great coach just opened up to me and we had a great talk about football coaching. During that brief chat, Coach Gagliardi told me all about how he runs his practices – and he mentioned all sorts of interesting things – things like that he never practices for more than an hour, and that he never has his team practice in full pads, and many other fascinating ideas – and you know what? After each thing he told me, he always explained WHY he did those things. Here was the all-time wins leader as a coach in college football, and that man was definitely a coach who knew WHY he did things.

Short, organized practices make total sense.  If you can't get it done in two hours, you're sloppy, didn't plan it, bad at teaching concepts and aren't very good at creating tempo.

Not hitting during the season is admittedly the concept I have the most trouble with.  There is an element of tackling and physical line play that can't be modeled and you can't appreciate until you're trying to take someone down who is trying their absolute hardest.  How much of that do you need to experience in-season to stay sharp?  Do games suffice?  However, it's clear to me that Pulaski is on the right side of the curve.

Considering that full scrimmages on Monday or Tuesday and heavy hitting on Wednesday was the high school, college and NFL norm until the 49ers and other teams introduced thud tempo, practices in shorts and a hitting ban during the season, it's hard to argue that there aren't benefits.  Somewhere between the Junction Boys and pure basketball on grass, there's a correct answer.  I suspect it may be a lot closer to the basketball on grass side.

More broadly, the data on CTE also demonstrates that rather than one dramatic hit causing brain trauma, it may be multiple, sub-concussive hits over time that could be the bigger culprit.  Are you in the game for the long run or are you trying to wring what you can out of a bunch of teenagers, damn the longer term consequences?  A lot of the data on CTE can be misleading (some researchers and some media are drawing circles around arrows and claiming that was the target all along) but it's clear to me that's there's something there - if football is not the only cause, it is a contributor.

Similarly, in the realm of MMA - a sport which is able to constantly ask "why?" because its relatively new and its brutal reality constantly undermines received wisdoms (if you're my age, you remember the pontifications that karate and kung fu guys were going to kill someone in the ring with their death touch in the first few UFCs) - the idea of sparring "camp wars" have fallen into disfavor.  Once viewed as an important rite of passage, many athletes are realizing that they're using up their best effortsin practice rather than game day.

Fewer overall injuries and fresher athletes is also a clear benefit.  The downside?  Can you still tackle worth a damn? Will you be physical?  Will your players be able to handle the shock of game day?

No Meetings on Game Day

We developed a lot of other practice-related concepts around this time, too. For example, I don’t allow my assistant coaches to have meetings with our players on game days. I put more stress on the importance of Monday through Thursday. I mean, if our players aren’t prepared for everything they need to know by the time game day arrives, then we haven’t done a very good job of preparing and coaching in our allotted practice time. Sure, the philosophy of "no-meetings on game-days," puts more pressure on everyone during the week, but if we work hard during the week and do our work efficiently, then our players don’t have to worry about things on game day. They will be prepared to go out there, execute their assignments and play.

Again - I think this is a perfect understanding of athlete psychology.  Just like the arrive late, get off the bus, pad up and kick ass idea reinforcing positive emotion and creating focus, I think this conveys confidence and the idea that we've now switched from passive prep to game day ownership.  If you've been properly instructed Monday-Thursday, a game day review is nothing but nervous ass-covering. The game plan is in place.  Let the athletes switch their minds from absorption and thinking mode into unconscious effortless action.  A prepared athlete doesn't need your nervous nagging, school marm.

If you have any doubt that this has a greater design...

In football, you can react to things that happen, or you can dictate how other teams are going to react. And that’s what we try to do. We want to dictate the course of events that occur during a football game. Look, the people who play football are all male, and rightly or wrongly, everyone has large male egos. Well, in our program, we like to play off that male ego a little bit and motivate players by saying things like….    "We’re the ones who are going to determine how other teams react."    "No one dictates how we’re going to play."    "We’re the ones who are in control of what happens during a game. Make no mistake about it, those types of statements and that mindset is aggressive by nature. And that mindset carries over and gives our players confidence. It’s then further bolstered by the way we attack opponents with our aggressive style of play.

Going for it on 4th down breeds athletic confidence.  In-game tactics reinforce game week preparation:

Always going for it on fourth down, for example, demonstrates that we have a high degree of confidence in our offensive players to successfully execute the offense, convert on fourth downs and keep drives moving, no matter the distance needed or game situation. We expect our offense to successfully convert on fourth down. In fact, successful fourth-down conversions are built-in as part of the game plan. Not many teams have that degree of confidence in their offense to covert on fourth down, but we do.

But what about the poor exposed defense?  Those guys have to be reeling, right?  Not really.

By the same token, it also tells our defensive players that during those situations where we fail to convert, and we trot them out there with only 20 yards to defend, that we believe they can get a stop. We have enormous confidence that our defensive unit will dig down deep and keep the other team from scoring. And we expect that they will get stops with their backs up against the wall, time after time, game after game.

So Pulaski Academy does value defense?  You bet.  As an instrument to get the ball back.  However that may occur.

Truthfully, I’d rather have an opponent score in two plays than have them control the game, run 18 plays and limit our offensive opportunities. Our team success is predicated on doing everything we can to keep offensive drives going, score on those drives and then onside kick to regain possession and do it all over again. Even a "bend-but-don’t-break" style of defense doesn’t work for us. We NEED the ball, we NEED to score and then we can attempt to steal additional possessions via onside kicks, which in my mind is the exact same thing as a turnover. So we need to be just as aggressive on the defensive side of the ball. As a result, we developed an attacking, blitzing style of defense that complements our offensive philosophy. On defense, we gamble by utilizing extreme pressure in an effort to try to force turnovers on every down. And yes, sometimes being too aggressive comes back to bite us – like when the other team scores on a failed defensive gamble. But at least it wasn’t an 18-play drive that ate up clock and controlled the tempo of the game. This defensive style also complemented our personnel. At Pulaski Academy, we generally don’t get a lot of huge linemen type of players. Our typical athletes are more linebacker or safety sized types of players, so we wanted a style of defense that best utilized our athleticism – all while playing into our program’s aggressive philosophy on both sides of the ball.

Kelley's approach is to layer statistical advantages gathered from unorthodox tactics on top of a highly aggressive, confidence-inducing style of play in which mentally tough athletes accustomed to chaos learn to view short-term results as irrelevant. The players believe that, over time, the game will always go their way. They're in control.

That's a great psychological platform from which to operate, isn't it?

Thoughts on Part II?