Last spring I began a recurring element to my blog called Stats That Matter. It was a way to examine the approach of a coach about some slightly outside the box statistic that the NCAA doesn't officially keep track of. The goal: illuminating a key detail the coach sees as reflective of their success. This week's Stats That Matter features Va. Tech running backs coach Shane Beamer who focuses on the real secret to what makes Hokie tailback David Wilson one of the breakout stars of 2011: Tackles Broken.
Beamer, who just returned to Blacksburg after coaching at Miss. State and South Carolina, noted that Wilson broke an astounding 15 tackles in the Hokies opener against Appalachian State. Beamer then was informed by Billy Hite, Tech's former RB coach who has been around Blacksburg since before TV was invented, that Wilson's performance actually qualified as a Hokie record for tackles broken in a game. Then, in WK 2, against East Carolina, Wilson almost tied his own school record, by breaking 14 tackles.
Beamer says he has been amazed at just how powerful the 205-pounder is. "I knew from watching him on TV how fast he is and how explosive he was is," said Beamer. "I had no idea just how strong he was. You go into our weight room and he holds two of the all-time records for running backs in power clean and the front squat. You watch him in the weight room and he's right up there with our offensive linemen in leg strength and a lot of things."
As Miss. State's running backs coach, Beamer had a talented, bruising tailback in Anthony Dixon, but the assistant said the 240-pounder never piled up the broken tackle numbers the way Wilson is doing. "Anthony was a great player, but he didn't have David's speed and explosiveness," Beamer said. In 2010, he was an assistant at South Carolina, but wasn't coaching running backs so he isn't sure how Wilson's numbers measure up to Gamecock star Marcus Lattimore. "I know Marcus had a bunch of em. I remember last year when we played Georgia, he had an obscene number of broken tackles and yards after contact."
Seeing Wilson power through tacklers, though, has proven to be an even bigger revelation for the younger Beamer: "I coach the kickoff return team here. I tell those guys 'you gotta continue playing until you hear the whistle because there's a shot where it looks like David is tackled and the play is over and then the next thing you know, you look and he's still running. And the guy who we were actually double-teaming, made the tackle or else he'd have scored a touchdown on the kickoff return.' So we have to continue to teach our guys with David the play is not over till the whistle blows."
The first thing Beamer does on Sunday morning when he arrives at the office is grade the game film from the previous day. In addition Beamer keeps tabs on tackles broken and yards after contact. He does not include the tackles Wilson breaks on kick returns in his game total, but he does factor in the ones he breaks on receptions. (Thus far, Wilson has only broken one tackle as a receiver in 2011.) Beamer said there isn't a place on the wall in the running backs room where he keeps the players total tackles broke, but says he probably should have one. "We talk about it on Mondays as a running backs group and we talk about it in front of the team. When a running back plays well, the one stat that we always include is the number of broken tackles that he had."
Beamer's criteria: "I count (a broken tackle) as any time where there is a defender in position to make a play and he gets a hand, arm, shoulder on the guy and doesn't bring him down. I don't count a broken tackle as (the ball-carrier) just making a guy miss in the open field or where he just runs away from somebody. The guy has to be in good position to make the tackle and get a body part on him."
The coach also doesn't include any time Wilson drags a tackler, say, five yards downfield before going down. "If I guy makes contact and then gets him down, I'll give him yards after contact but not 'a broken tackle.' It has to be a guy he breaks away from and that guy doesn't make the tackle."
By talking about a stat and emphasizing it, players take note. It becomes a source of pride, which is just how the coach wants it. "I think it's an important statistic," Beamer said. "The great running backs are the ones that are breaking tackles. They're always falling forward on contact. That's the other great thing about David. He's always falling forward and those yards add up. To me, it's so important. We talk to our running backs all the time about breaking tackles and being physical, and that's all a part of it."
Wilson, an All-American in track as a triple jumper, has clearly matured as a back. In his first two seasons at Tech, he averaged 5.7 and 5.5 yards per carry. This year he's averaging 7.1 as he's learned to become a more patient back while becoming even stronger after arriving at Tech at 194 pounds. "He is high-energy guy, so you have to constantly talk to him about the details--his alignment, how deep he is from the ball, taking the right step, making the right read," said Beamer. "We always talk to him about letting everything slow down for him--give your blockers time to get out there and get set up before you hit the hole. Last year, he got the ball and he just went full speed. There was no patience.
"He probably felt like when he got in there, he'd better make something happen because with Ryan (Williams) and Darren (Evans), he didn't know how long he'd be in there. He's done a good job. He's not looking over his shoulder."
Now Wilson is the one everyone needs to be looking out for.