By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
LINWOOD — The temperature at Mainland Regional High School on Saturday soared into the mid-90s, and nearly everyone in attendance at the Mainland Mustangs Football Free Youth Football Day had on a T-shirt that was drenched in sweat. It didn’t matter, though, because it’s officially football season, and that’s enough to get the juices flowing for coaches and players alike.
New Mustangs coach Chuck Smith came up with the idea of hosting a free youth football clinic for a couple of reasons. He wanted to give the youth football program coaches, parents and players a chance to get to know him and his staff. Smith, a longtime teacher at Mainland who coached at Oakcrest High School the past six seasons, takes over this year for legendary Mustangs coach Bob Coffey, who retired after the 2015 season following 30 years at the helm.
Smith also wanted to introduce youth football coaches from Somers Point, Linwood and Northfield to proper tackling techniques that many high school, college and professional teams are employing in an effort to make the game safer and reduce concussions and head injuries. To that end, he invited former Mainland star Dustin Grande down from North Jersey to speak to the youth coaches. Grande is a part of the Forward Progress Academy, which focuses on concussion prevention by teaching new fundamentals and techniques. FPA uses the “Heads Out Technique”, or H.O.T., for blocking and tackling. This program teaches the newest and most innovative techniques, starting at the youth level.
“Coach Smith did a great job reaching out to alumni, getting us involved after he became the head coach. He was the offensive coordinator here when I played in the late 1990s. He asked what we could do, and I told him what we were doing up in North Jersey with educating kids on ways to keep the head out of football. It’s a little bit of elements you hear about in the Heads Up program, some elements of the Hawk tackling that (Seattle Seahawks coach) Pete Carroll made popular. Our company is Forward Progress Academy and we teach coaches in youth football better ways to keep the head out of football in all aspects of the game, not just tackling, but blocking, running the ball and taking on blocks,” said Grande, who was a member of the Mustangs team that won a state championship in 1996. “So coach Smith said he was doing a youth football day and asked if I wouldn’t mind coming down and doing a clinic with the youth football coaches in town. We had about 15 coaches from the three towns and we took them through different aspects of the game, we took them through a bunch of drills. It was a great opportunity for them.”
“It was a lot of fun,” coach Smith said. “It was good to see the three communities come together for this event, especially the amount of youth coaches who came out today to learn some fundamentals in keeping the head out of tackling and blocking.”
Grande said he got a great response from the more than dozen youth coaches who were in attendance.
“They asked a lot of questions and we got feedback from them about what is working and what’s not. It’s about education and keeping this game going,” he said. “The game is getting attacked on a lot of levels — and sometimes rightfully so, because it is a violent game — but I think with proper technique and teaching the kids how to keep the head out the right way, through muscle memory, we can make the game as safe as possible.”
Grande said it’s vitally important for high school teams to encourage the youth programs that feed into their schools to be aware of the latest techniques and to be teaching proper techniques so that when players do reach the high school level they have good fundamentals. He also said it’s important for youth coaches to be open to new ideas and not get stuck in the old “tough guy” mentality of football.
“We focus on the youth level, because high school and college programs, those coaches are there all year. A lot of the stuff we learned (as young players) is outdated. Everyone who is out there, there heart is in the right place, but they are teaching techniques that are outdated. Things like, ‘get your head in there on the tackle, block that guy through the ear hole, get your head across the bow.’ All those sayings that we grew up on, this is changing that mentality and teaching them a better way,” Grande said. “We broke down a lot of youth football film for the programs we teach, and we found you have to be very specific with kids at a young age. If we can set the foundation with kids at a young age and teach them the right techniques and break bad habits, we can teach football a better way and make it a better sport.”
Smith had several of his current players working with campers as well as former stars, such as Grande and Brent Caprio, one of the best quarterbacks in Mainland history who went on to have an outstanding career at William & Mary and who now works in the Indianapolis Colts’ scouting department. The free football day attracted several dozen youth football players, and the Mainland High team managers and parents also helped out with keeping cold water and snacks available.
“I was happy with the turnout,” Smith said. “It was the first time we’ve done it, so now we can tweak some things and maybe open it up to some younger kids.
Eric Ruane, a 13-year-old from Linwood, said he learned a lot at the camp. He’s considering learning how to play the quarterback position, and getting reps with a guy like Caprio was a big thrill for him, he said.
“I learned a lot here. You’re always moving (to different drills) and they made it a lot of fun for us. My cousins, Teddy and Jack Bergman, are seniors and they were helping out at the clinic so they said for me to come,” Ruane said. “When I was getting quarterback reps I learned a lot about footwork and things like that. It was amazing seeing what (coaches and players) know. They are very good about teaching us new things.”
The day finished up with a skills competition, similar to something older football fans might remember from ABC’s Wide World of Sports back in the 1970s and 80s. There were throwing and kicking competitions and an obstacle course. Winners received official Mainland High School home and away jerseys.
“I learned when I was out at Oakcrest that kids emulate the players above them. High school kids sometimes don’t realize that the young kids treat them almost like NFL stars, and when they can wear a jersey like that, it means a lot to them,” Smith said. “It’s one community, one school. We’re one big family here, and that’s what we’re trying to emphasize as we move along.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN