BOULDER - Defensive coordinator Greg Brown doesn't believe tackling is a lost art, but he and Colorado coach Jon Embree are certain of this: Tackling fundamentals were lost on the CU defense last weekend against UCLA.
Brown and Embree have been around enough college and NFL teams to know when tackling is done by the book - and they didn't see the book opened that often in the Buffs' 42-14 beat-down by the Bruins.
As a result, the Buffs began their bye week with two heavy contact days - Tuesday, Wednesday - featuring tackling drills and other live work. The plan was to get those exercises on tape, and after a two-day weekend break, return for a Sunday afternoon practice preceded by meetings and a revealing film session.
Embree didn't map out the open week practices without taking the possibility of new injuries into account. "Guys can get hurt . . . there's a fine line" with heavy contact, he said. "But having the bye week, we just threw caution to the wind and said let's go . . . in normal periods where we usually (hold up), we went ahead and tackled."
Against UCLA, he said a glaring deficiency on defense was players not running to the ball. The Bruins' spread offense can isolate players, making pursuit critical. "We have to have more than one guy at the ball," Embree said. "That's a big part of tackling . . . UCLA's running game made us a little thin on the perimeter. They hurt us on the bubble screens, where we weren't able to make the tackle. It's the difference between a one-yard gain and a touchdown or a 20-yard gain and a two-yard gain.
"We have to keep working at that and keep emphasizing that, actually doing it in practice."
UCLA used three tailbacks, with all three recording runs of 23 yards or longer, topped by Johnathan Franklin's 28-yarder. He finished with 111 yards rushing and had 48 yards receiving, including a 28-yard catch/run that was high among UCLA's 10 receptions for 11 yards or more.
"If we tackle and don't have the two (third-quarter) turnovers, we win that game," Embree told his team.
Coaches' "ifs" in the aftermath of lopsided losses usually are debatable, but here's Embree's point: These Buffs have a minuscule margin for error. Allowing big gainers that should be stopped for small (or no) gains sabotages most expectations of winning.
Brown said his secondary missed 10 tackles against UCLA and pointed to "a combination of things" for his defense's sub-par tackling. He said his defenders "were stopping moving their feet, not closing the distance between themselves and the ball carrier . . . a lot of guys are natural tacklers to begin with, some are not. The ones that aren't, they have to strive to continue to improve and become fundamentally sound. You've got to figure out what to do with your feet, your hips, your 'face up' . . . it's all about technique."
Players in the secondary - the position Brown coaches - he mentioned as being "natural tacklers" included juniors Parker Orms and Terrel Smith, sophomore Greg Henderson and freshman Yuri Wright. But Brown added that even Smith and Henderson weren't their reliable selves against UCLA.
"I was very fortunate to be a part of Bill McCartney's staff - Jon Embree was, too - back in the early '90s," Brown said. "There were some outstanding tacklers on those teams. A lot of it had to do with so many guys having a strong desire to get to the ball. And when they got there they brought the wood."
He mentioned 1991's safeties, Greg Thomas and Eric Hamilton, the pair that succeeded them in '92, Chris Hudson and Dwayne Davis, as "fun groups to be around. But all of those guys on defense were tremendous players, really. In the D-line and linebacker spots you had guys like Chad Brown, Greg Biekert, Ted Johnson, Matt Russell . . . I mean, on and on. You're talking about some pretty good tacklers there."
Freshman cornerback Kenneth Crawley was credited with a game-high eight solo tackles against the Bruins, which usually is a sign that too many plays are being made too far behind the line of scrimmage. Moreover, Crawley doesn't characterize himself as a sure-tackler: "In high school (H.D. Woodson in Washington, D.C.) I didn't really have to tackle," he said.
"It was high school, and everything was being stopped up in the backfield because we had (fellow CU signee) De'Jon Wilson, at the time one of the best defensive ends in the country. So everything was being stopped up. All I had to do was cover people and get interceptions."
But, Crawley added, "If I had to tackle somebody, I would . . . coming to college I knew I would have to tackle and I knew I would have to get better."
Brown didn't include senior safety Ray Polk among his "natural tacklers" primarily because Polk hadn't played that much defense before switching from offense to defense after his freshman season at CU. One of the Buffs' defensive leaders, Polk hasn't played since the first quarter of the opener against Colorado State due to a high ankle sprain.
Polk, who hopes to return against Arizona State next week at Folsom Field (Thursday, Oct. 11, 7 p.m., ESPN), admitted that he initially "struggled with (tackling) coming from offense. It's a different thing, completely different. But tackling is pretty simple in that the more you do it, the better you get at it. You're going to figure it out eventually.
"If you start to get away from it and just fly around and try to make plays, that's when you get yourself in a bind. Like in a lot of spots on defense, you have to be a football player and you have to think while you're making a play. You actually have to think, 'OK, break it down . . . what's he (ball carrier) going to do? Watch his hips. All those different steps are a crucial part in just doing your job in specific areas on the field."
Assessing what plagued CU's defense in September - the Buffs are last in the Pac-12 Conference in total defense (474.4 yards allowed) and scoring defense (39.4 points) - Polk obviously pointed to poor tackling vs. UCLA.
"Besides that, it's just getting 11 guys to do their individual jobs and not try to do anything special," he said. "It's all about doing your job. The defense is going to work like it's drawn up on paper if everybody does his job. That's the biggest thing. We need more discipline, and this bye week really should help us because we can get back to fundamentals and more discipline."
DBs Crawley, Wright, Marques Mosley, Jeffrey Hall and CU's host of other true freshmen who saw significant playing time in September now have five college games on their resumes. Their coaches aren't considering them veterans yet, but neither are they being viewed as unschooled, unprepared rookies.
"I'm still learning, but I know I need to step it more," Crawley said. "I just have to get back and watch more film. I think all of us as a secondary need to do more to pick it up. We know we've got the talent here; we should be playing at a higher level."
BUFF BITS: Polk called the light work he did Tuesday "the first break I've had since I got the boot off. It's been what, 41/2 or 5 weeks? It's been a nightmare pretty much. I've been going to bed and seeing if I wake up and we're still in camp . . . it happens." . . . . Embree said on Wednesday he liked Polk's chances to play next week, adding Polk would bring leadership and improved communication to the secondary . . . . About a dozen first- or second-team players were held out of Tuesday's and Wednesday's practices to allow more healing time. Embree said if a game was scheduled this Saturday, those players would be "50-50" in terms of availability. "I think we'll be as healthy (for ASU) as we were for the first game of the season," he added . . . . The Buff Bowl - a short controlled scrimmage matching players who are redshirting or are lower on the depth chart - was held Wednesday afternoon rather than Thursday as initially scheduled. Embree said after two days of intense tackling work and other contact, he wanted to reward those players . . . . Redshirt freshman offensive tackle Stephane Nembot continues to improve in pass protection and is "a brute in the run game," Embree said. "I expect a lot of good things out of him as he gets more comfortable playing at this level." Nembot has started the past two games but continues to split time with junior Ryan Dannewitz . . . . Thursday's practice has been called off in lieu of weight room work and running. Friday and Saturday are days off, with many players scheduled to take trips home . . . . The Buffs will resume work for the Sun Devils on Sunday afternoon, with that workout being a normal Tuesday practice because the game is on Thursday night.