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By Matthew Popino, Former Linebackers Coach, Fitchburg, State University (MA)

Since Fitchburg State University transitioned into a shoulder-leverage tackling team, the Falcons have finished #15 defense in Division III and the #1 defense in the MASCAC conference in recent times. The system has allowed players to play fast, physical and fundamentally sound without risking injury. In this exclusive clinic report, former linebackers coach Matthew Popino details the drills he uses to teach tracking, fit and finish on ball carriers. Read the report...


By Matthew Popino
Former Linebackers Coach
Fitchburg State University (MA)
Twitter: @CoachPop2015


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Our tackling philosophy is based off of rugby tackling and shoulder-leverage. Rugby tackling affords our players a safer and more efficient tackling method. It enables players to play fast, physical and fundamentally sound defense without the fear of injuries. This tackling philosophy doesn’t just address the tackling in itself, but gives a simple and clear understanding of where players fit into the defense. Shoulder-leverage tackling communicates how force and scrape players work together. No matter what defense you may run, there are players who are forcing the ball outside-in (force) and inside-out (scrape). We break up these fundamentals into four categories:

  1. Leverage
  2. Tracking
  3. Fit
  4. Finish

Coaching Leverage

We first teach our players leverage and understanding how their leverage fits into the defense. They must understand the importance of keeping their leverage on the ball carrier. Most missed tackles are caused by players losing their leverage. This is seen when an inside-out (scrape) defender over runs the ball carrier and allows a cutback or an outside-in (force) defender goes inside and allows the ball carrier outside. These common mistakes can be eliminated by the use of shoulder-leverage.

We preach near foot and near shoulder of the defender to the near hip of the ball carrier. Everything is predicated on the near hip. The near hip is our target and their eyes must be locked in on this point. Our players must keep their eyes on their target as they approach. We preach to keep the ball carrier on your near shoulder and to force him to the help, creating a vice. As you can see below in diagram #2, we have a right shoulder tackler and a left shoulder tackler or a force and scrape player. This now puts the ball carrier in a bind.


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  • The coaching points that Coach Popino uses to teach tracking on the ball carrier.
  • The coaching points that Coach Popino uses to teach the correct fit on the ball carrier.
  • The coaching points that Coach Popino uses to teach the proper finish on the ball carrier.
  • Plus film of all these fundamentals.

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At Fitchburg State, we have had a lot of success in teaching the rugby/shoulder leverage tackling progression. It has given our players a better understanding of what their leverage is in the defense while still playing fast and physical. It is a simple and effective method that makes tackling safer and much more efficient.

Meet Coach Popino: Matt Popino currently serves in player development at Rutgers University. Prior to taking that position, Popino served as the linebackers Coach at Fitchburg State University. While at Fitchburg, his squad finished #15 defense in Division III in 2015 and the #1 defense in the MASCAC conference.



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