Wednesday, May 23, 2018

New o-line coaches bringing a unique perspective to Lions

May 22, 2018
By Tim Twentyman

Having both played in the NFL, new offensive line coaches Jeff Davidson and Hank Fraley bring a unique perspective to the Lions.

As the Lions progress through the offseason training program, the offensive linemen are learning new ways to do things with the addition of new o-line coaches Jeff Davidson and Hank Fraley (assistant).

In Davidson and Fraley, the Lions have hired two line coaches with extensive NFL playing experience, which is something veteran T.J. Lang can already tell brings a little different element to the table.

“Obviously, Jeff is a guy who’s been around for a long time,” Lang said. “He’s a former player himself, so he understands what it’s like sitting in those chairs. I think it’s been a great addition to the team.

“I think both him and Hank, the assistant o-line coach, Hank is a guy that played a long time, too.”

Davidson played for the Broncos and Saints over a five-year career from 1990-94. He moved into coaching in 1995 with the Saints after a shoulder injury ended his playing career.

Fraley’s playing days spanned a decade with the Eagles, Browns and Rams. He finished his playing career in 2010 before getting into coaching with the Chargers in 2012.

“I think that having someone with a lot of their own personal experiences can help me and younger guys in our locker room getting our technique down, and a lot of questions he’ll be able to answer,” veteran Graham Glasgow said of the addition of Fraley as Davidson’s assistant upfront. “And I think that he, especially for the centers and the interior lineman, is a very good resource to make sure we can be the best we can be.”

There are a lot of very good NFL coaches who never played a down in the NFL as a player, but those players that do make the transition to coaching have a unique perspective.

Davidson played both tackle and guard, and Fraley played center, so the pair have every position upfront covered.

Lang said the players are still learning the new terminology, blocking schemes and exactly how the new coaches want things run, but everything has been “very positive” to this point.

A new message can’t be a bad thing after the Lions struggled upfront last season with injuries and consistency. Detroit’s rushing attack finished last in the NFL last season, and quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked 47 times, second most in the NFL (Jacoby Brissett, 52).

“I would say that Jeff seems like a fantastic guy,” Glasgow said. “He’s a very down to earth coach and I think that he’s somebody who will help our position group improve and get better throughout the year.”

Bucs OTAs: Chandler Catanzaro nails all his field goals on Day 1

By Bonnie Mott
May 23, 2018

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked off Day 1 of OTAs Tuesday and among the biggest highlights from the day is kicker Chandler Catanzaro nailing all five of his field goal attempts. Meanwhile, rookie kicker Trevor Moore finished the day 4-for-5 on field goals.

Considering all the drama surrounding the Bucs placekicking position, this is great news for the Buccaneers, especially after the past few seasons which have consisted of shuffling the team’s roster and one too many kicking game woes.

Although the Buccaneers just signed Catanzaro to a new deal in free agency, the position has been one of the team’s most prominent issues and among their biggest concerns for quite some time now. Considering all the issues surrounding the Bucs “kicking curse” and lackluster kicking game, it’s no surprise to see general manager Jason Licht and company determined to ensure Tampa Bay’s kicking game woes don’t resurface once again this season. Catanzaro finishing the day with a flawless performance is definitely one step in the right direction no doubt.

The next media OTA is Thursday at One Buc Place, so be sure to stay tuned for more updates and news throughout the week.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Learn from the Leader: Katie Smith Talks About Becoming Liberty Head Coach

MAY 18, 2018

There are two full courts at the New York Liberty’s practice facility in Tarrytown, NY. Katie Smith, the Liberty’s new head coach, stands between them on the sideline, watching her squad go through a 5-on-5-on-5 drill. The Liberty’s roster has been split into two teams and a group of college-level men’s players make up the other five. They go back-and-forth in a fast paced drill, trying to score three points. Get a bucket, stay and sprint to the other side to try and get another. The losers of the drill have to run baseline-to-baseline.

A few moments later Smith stands on the court with a big smile on her face and lines up the losers. She blows her whistle and darts out of the way of an incoming sprinter, looking over at her assistant coaches and laughing.

Then she kicks everyone off the court and goes through a shell drill, walking the Liberty through one of their offensive sets. Fourth-year forward Rebecca Allenraises her hand and asks Smith to detail the play again.

“[Smith is] teaching it,” Liberty assistant coach Teresa Weatherspoon says. “There’s a difference in coaching and teaching. There’s a huge difference. It’s about stopping and talking about the small details so the kids can understand the proper angle to set screens, the proper way to have your feet, the movement, the timing. She’s teaching that.”

Smith, 43, has already locked up a spot in the Naismith Hall of Fame because of what she did as a player—two-time WNBA champion, 2008 Finals MVP, three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, seven-time All-Star. Now she’s just a few days away from her first season as a head coach.

“Being a player is way easier than a coach,” Smith says. “The time, it just never ends. Honestly, most of my career, I didn’t want to coach. I literally said it, all the way up until four years left. And then Bill [Laimbeer] was like, ‘Hey, you want to coach?’ And I didn’t have anything lined up.”

Smith played her last pro season with the Liberty in 2013 and then transitioned right to the bench. It was only a matter of time before she was given the reigns in New York.

“I wouldn’t say I expected it but I had a good feeling that it was going to be somebody that we were familiar with,” Liberty guard Brittany Boyd says with a grin. “Katie’s been here since I came in. I was excited, you know, to get to play for Katie. It’s a good experience to have a new head coach for the first time.”

Smith says that she’s been calling around to her former coaches learn as much as possible in an effort to put Boyd and the rest of her players in the best position to win.

She says that Brian Agler and Cheryl Reeve have been key during the offseason to helping her in all aspects of coaching, from writing practice plans to effectively teaching technique.

“What’s also been special about the game is not just the playing. It truly is the relationships,” she says, standing underneath one of the baskets at the practice facility. Two of her former teammates, Shavonte Zellous and Marissa Coleman, are to her left. Weatherspoon, dribbling around the gym, has played against her and coached with her for well over 20 years. The recently retired Swin Cash was intensely watching today’s practice. She played on Team USA and two WNBA teams with Smith.

Boyd says Smith, with all of her knowledge and years of playing, is already a good coach. “She explains things, she’s breaking stuff down. But she’s also holding us all accountable for our mistakes. It doesn’t matter who you are. If you make a mistake, she’s going to put you on the line and run. I think we’re learning from that,” the fourth-year guard says.

But Smith is also known for constantly joking around. Practices are always light, with lots of laughs. Smith and Weatherspoon have spent the last few seasons working with the Liberty’s guards and forwards before games start. Those pregame warmup sessions regularly feature trash talk, smirking and mock games of one-on-one.

“If they see that with us, it trickles to them,” Weatherspoon says. “We walk in, it’s about having fun, they’re going to have fun. It’s important.”

“I think that breeds an environment of excitement,” Smith says. “Because it is work, but we’re also playing a game. You just don’t want them to get so worried. You want to go out there and play a little bit.”

The Liberty are gearing up for a big season. They’ve been the three seed in the playoffs for the past two years and they’ve been bounced out early in each of those postseason runs. One-time WNBA MVP Tina Charles is still in her prime and Smith has veterans like Zellous, Coleman, Epiphanny Prince, Kia Vaughn and Sugar Rodgers to help Boyd, Bria Hartley, Kiah Stokes and the rest of NY’s young players.

That’s why the first-time head coach hasn’t stopped working.

“You go home and start thinking about it at night,” Smith says. “Maybe I should pull up some new plays. Like, how can I help them? Your brain is just never off.”

Smith, with the weight of the franchise on her shoulders, walks to the far baseline after a moment, right past Weatherspoon, who’s forever dribbling.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Secret Behind Notre Dame’s Offensive Line: Harry Hiestand

May 18, 2018
By Eric Olson

This year, for the only the third time in 50 years, two offensive linemen from the same school were selected in the top 10 picks of the NFL Draft. The Indianapolis Colts drafted guard Quenton Nelson 6th overall and the San Francisco 49ers drafted tackle Mike McGlinchey 9th overall, both hailing from Notre Dame. While this is no doubt an impressive feat in and of itself, it becomes even more impressive when you consider that Notre Dame has had an offensive lineman selected in the first round in 3 of the last 5 years (Zack Martin in 2014 and Ronnie Stanley in 2016). So, what gives? Has Notre Dame simply gotten lucky on their recent string of OL recruits? While good recruiting mixed with a little luck is definitely part of the explanation, there is one variable that has remained constant over the five year period of sustained OL success: Harry Hiestand. I contend that the biggest reason for the success upfront at Notre Dame is Harry Hiestand and his ability to teach both individual technique and simple run schemes incredibly well.

Teaching the Scheme: Inside Zone

Last season, Notre Dame finished 8th in the country in rush yards per game. What’s even more impressive about this statistic is that that nearly all of the teams ahead of them were option-centric teams, while Notre Dame establishes the run game with a simple inside zone scheme. So, what exactly do I mean when I say ‘Inside Zone’?

While inside zone is just about the most simple run play you can design, it is not always as simple as just blocking the zone in the correct direction of the play. The basic rules are as such: if your zone is occupied at the line of scrimmage, you block that man. If your zone in unoccupied and there is a man in your backside zone, you double team him up to second level defender that is in your zone. How this usually manifests upfront, against a base 4-man front, is two sets of two-for-twos and one blocker going one-on-one. Meaning, the backside OT and the backside G are responsible for the backside DT and the backside LB, the C and play-side G are responsible for the play-side DT and the play-side LB, and the play-side OT has a one on one block with the play-side DE:

There are an infinite amount of variations of inside zone that can be run. The one diagrammed above incorporates a quarterback read to hold the backside defensive end. The point of the diagram is not to show this particular variation, but rather, to show the combination blocks that ideally will occur between the backside OT & G and the C & play-side G. When the backside DT is lined up as a 3 technique (in between the guard and tackle, shaded onto the guard), with a front side 2i technique (in between the center and guard, shaded on the guard), there are two easy double teams up to the second level defender.

These double teams are the lifeblood of any inside zone play; if you get movement on the DTs and account for the second level defenders, your play will be successful. Notre Dame executed this concept up front better than nearly any college program I have ever seen. Does it help that they had two top 10 picks working on double teams together? Obviously. Yet, the technique that they display is exceptional and can directly be attributed to the coaching they have received from Hiestand.

My college offensive line coach used to drill this phrase into us when it came to double teams: “hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder”. This ensures that you are working in unison, in the same direction, making sure the down lineman cannot split you, and gives the OL that is not peeling off onto the LB a chance to take over the block and stay engaged. Watch how square both McGlinchey (LT #68) and Nelson (LG #56) are to start the play above, their shoulders are nearly parallel. This allows them to move the DT off the ball and gives McGlinchey the ability to stay balanced and easily come off on the LB while Nelson remains on the DT. Furthermore, the play-side double team is nearly as good. Again, both hip to hip, shoulder to shoulder, ready to account for both the down lineman and the LB. This is how you coach an inside zone double team.

Double teams are easy when the defenders stay put. Conversely, the hardest thing to do when running inside zone is to block movement. Doing so requires you to stay balanced, disciplined and remain on your zone track all while maintaining ‘man awareness’ and understanding that your responsibilities may shift. You must have awareness for the individual defenders, but not chase somebody who has abandoned your zone.

Both Nelson and McGlinchey execute these fundamentals perfectly here. Nelson takes the necessary steps to double team the DT, but instead of chasing him when he slants to the C gap, Nelson simply stays on his zone angle, tracking the LB until the point of contact, where he then aggressively delivers a beautiful two-handed punch and finishes him into the ground. McGlinchey’s fundamentals are equally as impressive. As a tackle on a double team with the guard, you are the designed ‘drive man’. The guard’s job is to post up the DT and the OT comes in violently to create movement off the line of scrimmage. A line must be toed by the OT where he is coming in aggressively enough to move the down lineman, but is on balance enough to handle movement. This is exactly what McGlinchey does. He takes a step in which he is ready to double team the DT, feels the movement, stays on balance and walls off the defender, giving the ball a crease to go.

When you run inside zone, the RB’s typical aiming point is the front side hip of the center. However, as opposed to many other schemes, very seldom does the ball actually go where it is ‘supposed to’. For instance, in a power scheme, 9 times out of 10, the ball will follow the pulling guard, behind the front side double team. This is not the case with inside zone. It is the job of the offensive line to create movement, block all the defenders they are responsible for and allow the running back to find a natural crease. While this play is designed to go to the right, Notre Dame’s creates so much distortion moving that direction that a natural cut back lane to the left emerges. Look how in-sync the line looks, all moving on their zone angles and accounting for all the necessary defenders. While many of the above plays contained some fantastic individual efforts from exceptional players like Nelson and McGlinchey, this play, across the board, is how inside zone should look and that can be attributed to coaching.

A similar sentiment exists here from the previous play. This play is really devoid of a truly great individual effort. It is just five guys, on the same page, doing their job. Again, it is plays like this where coaching truly shines through. For instance, the RT does not block the man he is originally responsible for. His defender completely over scrapes, but instead of chasing him, he simply stays on his track and blocks the defender who shows up in his zone, allowing RB Josh Adams to break loose for six.

The best offensive linemen are not that ones that do anything particularly flashy. Rather, they are the ones that do the simple things extremely, extremely well. A guard who can pull in open space, track down some defensive backs and make a highlight reel block is all fine and well, but it means nothing if he can’t execute the fundamentals required on a basic inside run play (or he can do both and his name is Quenton Nelson). The Notre Dame offensive line embodies this sentiment. They take the simplest of run concepts and run them as well as anybody in the country. When the entire line consistently flashes the ability to execute a particular concept at an extremely high-level, it can be directly attributed to the coaching they receive.

Exceptional Individual Efforts

You probably thought that I was going to start with a McGlinchey or Nelson highlight, didn’t you? While this would have been the easy way to do it, and I will cover both of them below, it shows more about Hiestand if I shine the spotlight on some of the less heralded players on the Notre Dame OL.

The players to watch here are the RT and RG. This is a phenomenal double team. As mentioned above, it is the job of the OT to be the drive man on a double team. The RT here executes this technique perfectly: he comes in violently, but on-balanced, and drives the defender 4 yards off the ball into the lap of the LB, allowing Josh Adams to break free. The best thing a double team can do, surprisingly, is not block both the DT and the LB. Rather, the best thing that a double team can do is knock the DT so far off the ball that the LB does not have a place to fill and is taken out of the play without ever being touched (look at #37 on Temple).

What do you know? More inside zone from Notre Dame. The player to watch here is Quenton Nelson (#56). While you have probably all seen his crazy suplex-style blocks that have made him famous, I contend that it’s plays like this that make him so special. This is the most basic thing that you can ask a guard to do, a 1 on 1 drive block. Despite being ‘basic’, it also one of the most difficult things you can ask a guard to do. In order to move a defender, by yourself, you must use superb technique. To put it bluntly, this is some of the most picture-perfect run blocking technique I have ever seen. The three things to look at are Nelson’s feet, hips and hands. Nelson keeps his feet apart through the entire duration of the play, snaps his hips on contact and shoots his hands right under the defender’s chest plate to control the block.

You can keep going down the coach’s checklist of what to look for in a run block and Nelson is executing it in spades. Elbows tight to the rib cage, check. Weight on the insteps on the feet, check. Powerful, positive-moving steps, check. Strain to finish the block, check. The point is, it would be hard to draw up better run blocking technique. It takes a special player to execute this technique, but it takes a special coach to teach it to him.

For a college OT, McGlinchey is incredibly polished, especially in the passing game. The best pass sets are ‘smooth and quiet’. Look at how ‘quiet’ McGlinchey’s movements are. His arms are not pumping to help him move back, his kick steps are quick, powerful and not over exaggerated, and his upper body is relaxed but upright. The less variables or moving parts in a pass set, the better. You want to be relaxed, but ready to strike. You want to move back quickly, but be balanced with your feet apart. It may sound counter-intuitive, and may be hard to explain, but you see someone like McGlinchey do it and it becomes a little more clear.

Blocking in space is not easy. You are asking a 300+ lb. man to block a much smaller, much more athletic defender while moving and trying to stay on balance. You may think that the secret to success as an offensive lineman in space is to have an extremely athletic offensive lineman. While, obviously, this helps, the real secret is in technique you use and discipline you display. My OL coach used to give these coaching points: meet him where he is going to be (if you try to just outrun him, good luck), wait until you can step on his toes to block him and at the point of contact you step, dip and strike. All of these tactics are designed to give yourself, as a much lesser athlete, the best chance to block a far superior athlete. Well this is exactly what Nelson does. He pulls at the perfect angle, waits until the last second and then steps, dips and strikes the defender, giving the ball a place to go.

The uniformity of excellence across multiple positions and multiple different techniques cannot simply be attributed to great players. Between the way that Notre Dame so effectively ran their base run schemes and the success of the individual players, an argument can be made that the secret behind their recent string of OL success may be the man coaching them. Like any great player/coach relationship, it remains unclear where the lionshare of the credit belongs, however, with this recent string of success upfront at Notre Dame, one thing is for sure, Harry Hiestand is a hell of a coach and Chicago got a great one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Kevin Wilson Has Been Here Before

May 14, 2018
By Tony Gerdeman

Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson has been around and has run a variety of offenses in his time. He’s had run-first quarterbacks, pass-only quarterbacks, and dual threats that allowed him to be whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it.

So while moving from a dual-threat quarterback like J.T. Barrett to a pass-first guy like Dwayne Haskins might be jarring for the Ohio State identity, it is nothing new for Wilson.

When he was at Indiana, his quarterbacks had a disastrous 2014 thanks to injuries and inexperience. Starter Nate Sudfeld missed the final six games with an injury, which then threw the situation into a tailspin. Things got so bad that the Hoosiers were eventually playing a linebacker at the position.

In 2015, however, Sudfeld was good to go and played in 12 of Indiana’s 13 games. He ran the ball 46 times, most of which were actually sacks. He was a pass-first guy, but the offense didn’t suffer because of it.

In fact, Indiana led the Big Ten in total offense that year, averaging 504.3 yards per game. They were first in passing with 293.8 yards per game. Perhaps most impressively, however, was that they were also able to finish second in the conference in rushing, averaging 210.5 yards per game.

The Hoosiers had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers that season.
Jordan Howard carried the ball 196 times for 1,213 yards and Devine Redding carried it 226 times for 1,012 yards. Only Northwestern (600 att.) ran the ball more than Indiana (592 att.) in 2015.

The quarterback may have been pass-first, but the offense was as balanced as any in the country. And Kevin Wilson hasn’t forgotten it.

“We basically ran the same offense at my previous school,” he said. “So all of the sudden when I had a quarterback that wasn’t a great runner, there was two kids with 1,000 yards because those carries went to the second tailback. And then all of the sudden we were, instead of the quarterback pulling it and keeping it, he was throwing it and that’s why he had three receivers with over 50 catches.”

Looking at Ohio State’s offense, they currently have two tailbacks that have rushed for 1,000 yards in a season. Now, with the quarterback carries dropping considerably, there is a legitimate shot at both Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins rushing for 1,000 yards in 2018.

The offense will still be recognizable, because the staples won’t change. Just like Indiana in 2015, the running game will be the key, but the distribution of the ball from the quarterback is what will be different.

“But it was still inside zone, power,” Wilson said. “It was the same plays, but where the balls got distributed. So again, as we go, the offense isn’t changing. We’re going to develop what we got and then those quarterbacks, in time, we put it together to, is it read, is it run, is it, you do a little bit of both.”

Factoid that may only interest me

By Peter King
May 14, 2018

2008: Anthony Gonzalez, a second-year wideout for the Colts, catches two touchdown passes from Peyton Manning to lift Indianapolis to an 18-15 upset of the Patriots on Sunday night football.

2018: Anthony Gonzalez, a rookie Republican politician, wins the Congressional primary in a northeast Ohio district, and will run for an open Congressional seat in the 16th District of Ohio in the November general election.

Monday, May 14, 2018

New England Patriots RBs coach: Rex Burkhead is 'something special'

New England Patriots running back Rex Burkhead (34) breaks free from Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Patrick Robinson (21) in Super Bowl LII, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018 in Minneapolis. The Eagles defeated the Patriots 41-33 to win their first Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Doug Benc)(Doug Benc)

By Kevin Duffy
May 14, 2018

FOXBOROUGH -- Rex Burkhead's first season with the Patriots was interrupted twice by injury, but the team must have liked what it saw.

Burkhead was brought back on a three-year deal this offseason. And, based off comments from Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears, Burkhead looks like a strong candidate to grab the starting running back job this summer.

"This time last year, he started showing us what he could do," Fears said on Friday. "Once you get a chance to see it, you sort of build on it. Rex is something special. I like him."

Burkhead carved out a unique role in the 2017 Patriots offense; he emerged as the team's top goal line back, but he also was a mismatch in the passing game, taking advantage of linebackers in coverage.

He took a screen pass 46 yards in Super Bowl LII, and he easily beat Broncos safety Darian Stewart for a 14-yard touchdown on a slant route during a Week 10 matchup in Denver. Despite missing seven games (playoffs included) due to an injury to his ribs and a sprained knee, Burkhead showed enough to warrant another contract in New England.

"He's a great kid," Fears said. "He has that passion for the game that I sort of have too. I sort of love that. It makes it easy. I don't have to worry about him getting work done off the field...He's a real professional player and loves what he's doing."

With Dion Lewis in Tennessee, the starting job is up for grabs. Burkhead's ability as a runner and receiver will give him a solid shot to get on the field early. First-round pick Sony Michel also will challenge for the No. 1 role.

James White's role in the passing game is entrenched. And then there's the battle between Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill. The Pats figure to keep one of the two as a between-the-tackles threat.

Fears, who has coached running backs in New England for nearly two decades, is intrigued by Hill.

Formerly of the Cincinnati Bengals, Hill is looking to revitalize his career. He rushed for 1,124 yards while averaging 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie in 2014, but has seen his numbers steadily decline in the three years since.

"I was really high on him coming out of college, from LSU," Fears said. "I thought the world of him. I thought it was a good grab by Cincinnati. Hey, I'm sort of looking forward to this challenge and seeing what he can do for us."

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Ex-Ohio State, NFL player Gonzalez wins GOP US House primary

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 7: Wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez #11 of the Ohio State Buckeyes looks on during the game against the Bowling Green Falcons at Ohio Stadium on October 7, 2006 in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio State won 35-7. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)

May 8, 2018

CLEVELAND — A former Ohio State University football star has won the Republican nomination in the race to succeed Rep. Jim Renacci in Ohio’s U.S. House District 16.

Renacci’s northeast Ohio seat is coming open because of his run for U.S. Senate.

Former Buckeyes and Indianapolis Colts receiver Anthony Gonzalez won a three-way primary Tuesday with state Rep. Christina Hagan and physician Michael Grusenmeyer. Both Hagan and Gonzalez aligned themselves with Republican President Donald Trump on issues such as building a border wall.

Gonzalez is the son of a Cuba-born Cleveland businessman.

Six candidates were battling Tuesday in the Democratic primary in the district.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Former Ohio State football captain Christian Bryant earns sociology degree

By Stephen Pianovich
May 6, 2018

Former Ohio State safety Christian Bryant was back in Ohio Stadium on Sunday as he got his degree from the university.

Bryant, who played with the Buckeyes from 2010-13, earned his diploma in sociology. Ohio State Football’s Twitter account posted a picture of Bryant in his cap and gown.

Bryant was a captain with the Buckeyes during his senior season in 2013. He was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes and finished his college career with 171 tackles and 2 interceptions. The St. Louis Rams picked Bryant in the seventh round of the 2013 NFL Draft, but he was not on an NFL roster in the 2017 season.

The Buckeyes had a handful of players graduate this weekend.

Eliminate kickoffs? Not if Nate Ebner has a say

By Paul Daugherty
May 6, 2018

There are people who talk about things, and there are people who know about them. It’s the difference between taking a picture of a sheer rock face, and climbing one. Which gets me to the NFL, kickoffs in the NFL and an Ohio guy named Nate Ebner.

He’s a 7th-year pro from Springfield, who walked on at Ohio State and was drafted in the sixth round by the New England Patriots. Ebner is a quintessential “teams’’ guy. A relentless, driven badass. Or, in his words, “a dog. Every great special teams player is a dog. Whatever it takes, floor it, no back down, be a pain in the tail.’’

Ebner’s not happy the NFL is talking about booting the kickoff. Green Bay Packers CEO and president Mark Murphy, a member of the league’s competition committee, said recently, "If you don't make changes to make it safer, we're going to do away with it.’’

Murphy doesn’t lack credibility. He played eight years in the NFL and was an all-pro safety. Murphy has been on the rock face.

The threat is worrisome enough that a dozen or so special-teams coaches, including the Bengals’ Darrin Simmons, have offered changes designed to lessen the head-injury risk in playing on a kickoff team. They’re suggesting ways to cut down the speed of collisions and the yardage between combatants. Fender-benders instead of front-end manglers. Opposing players would run with each other, not into each other. Kickoffs would resemble punts.

It’s an effort to save the play from the boneyard. It’s also an existential question for players. Football is a violent game. Pain is implied in the contract. Everyone understands this. Are we not men? What's the problem?

“Nobody cares more about player safety than the players,’’ Ebner says. “I don’t want to get hurt. I’m rehabbing my knee right now (torn ACL). I don’t want to have CTE. But I’m not afraid of it. I’m not going to let it take my dream away.’’

When he walked on at Ohio State in 2009, Ebner hadn’t played football since middle school. The chances of making the Buckeyes as a non-preferred walk-on are almost zero. The chances of actually playing are even less. In three years as a Buckeye, Ebner never missed a game on special teams. Beyond teams, his OSU career consisted of three plays on defense (as a safety) his senior year.

Then the Patriots drafted him at No. 197, in 2012. That was two spots higher than they’d taken Tom Brady 12 years earlier. By all rights, Ebner had no business playing college or pro football. But special teams rewards and glorifies its selfless strivers. It loves its dogs. There’s something very noble about that.

(Ebner is also the only active NFL player ever to be an Olympian, having played on the U.S. Rugby 7s side in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. But that’s another story.)

Ebner speaks for most NFL players when he wonders about the NFL’s future. If the league bans kickoffs, what’s next? “I don’t want to see such an ingrained part of the game taken away,’’ he says. “I’m not as concerned about running down on kickoffs as I am playing (defense) on 3rd-and-1 at the goal line. Fullback’s the lead blocker, middle linebacker’s coming into the hole. You don’t think that’s a collision?

“At least on kickoffs, I have a lot of space. I have plenty of room to move my guy. The good players on kickoffs aren’t just running into people. They’re using their feet to create space, they’re using their hands.

“I’ve seen three (head injuries on kickoffs) over seven years,’’ Ebner says. “Two were mine, because I didn’t have my head in the right place. That was my fault.’’

The NFL finds itself in a position of historic irony. Not just with the kickoff question, but with every facet of the sport. Part of the league’s appeal is visceral. We love big hits. They’re a guilty pleasure. Players are taught to play with violent, instinctive intelligence. How do we take part of that equation away?

Play hard. Sort of.

But head trauma — and the pounding the league’s image has taken because of it — has to be addressed. The NFL says its numbers show that last season, concussions happened on kickoffs five times more than on any other play.

Ebner also notes that eliminating the kickoff would eliminate jobs. Something else would be lost, too: The long-shot chance for people like Nate Ebner to play the game. Marginal players find a foothold on special teams. Their diligence and persistence are rewarded. They might be a little nuts. But it’s a good nuts.

“There’s no better feeling than making a big hit or knocking the ball out on a special teams play that totally changes the momentum of the game,’’ Ebner says.

Mark Murphy says the kickoff is on a “short leash.’’ Does he recognize the dogs he’s dealing with?

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