HOUSTON — Tom Herman began his media conference on the Monday after the Cougars’ 33-23 defeat of Oklahoma with a reference to the “physical mismatches” that his team might confront when it takes the field. Asked later to elaborate, Herman said the Cougars are smaller than half the teams in the Power 5.
And yet the Cougars beat Oklahoma the same way they have won 14 of 15 games under Herman. They are physical, a polite way of saying they hit their opponents in the mouth. Then they line up and do it again. It doesn’t matter how many five-star recruits the Cougars see on the other side of the line.
“Turn on the Florida State film,” Herman said, referring to Houston’s 38-24 victory in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last season.
“We train, hopefully harder than anybody in the country,” Herman said. “I don’t have any metrics that say we do. Our goal is, train harder and more physical than any program in the country. … We like to think that we practice so hard that the games are easy.”
Herman, one of the sport’s youngest head coaches, has planted himself in its oldest verities. If you listen closely enough to his words, you might hear the mumble of Bear Bryant. But America doesn’t celebrate smashmouth football quite the way it did when Woody Hayes stalked the sideline.
The specter of CTE looms over the sport. Youth participation is declining because parents are scared. NFL players in the primes of their careers are walking away from the game. The league has curtailed contact in the offseason. “Thud” practices, where players hit but don’t take anyone to the ground, are as common in college football as water breaks.
Herman has little use for thud.
“I don’t think you can ask anybody in any walk of life to do anything at a championship level without doing it over and over and over and over and over again in preparation,” he said.
Herman said he is frustrated by the beating that football has taken in the public discourse.
“When the President of the United States comes out and says, ‘If I had boys, I wouldn’t let them play tackle football,’ that’s a big punch to the gut for our sport,” Herman said.
Herman is convinced that fewer kids in Pop Warner guarantees a diminished quality of play in college and pro football down the road.
Yet, he is savvy enough to understand the political volatility of advocating for the benefits of contact at a time when football is fighting for its reputation as a safe sport.
“I hope you’re not going to make me out to be this meatgrinder that doesn’t care about kids’ safety,” Herman said. “We do. You go to Iowa and Alabama and Stanford, I’m sure you’re going to find the same amount of physicality at those places [as] Ohio State. I’m not a butcher. I don’t want you to make me out to be some heathen butcher.”
Equipment has made the game safer. So have rules changes. Herman is all for them. If research shows that the kickoff should be eliminated, you won’t hear a squawk out of him. Herman is teaching the rugby-style tackle advocated by Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
Yet the players who made it through August — and, middle linebacker Matt Adams said, not all of them do — receive a certificate congratulating them for enduring the hardest fall camp in college football. The Cougars suffered six concussions during preseason practice, which Herman said is within the range of what happens elsewhere.
Asked to describe the physical nature of Cougar practices, Adams said, “It’s like beating your head against a wall for two and a half hours.” The Cougars’ Tuesday practice is referred to inside the football building as “Bloody Tuesday.”
“That means they’ll get after it,” said strength coach Yancy McKnight, whose job it is to prepare the Cougars for what Herman demands of them. “I know this: The first day we go full pads and we go to inside drill ….it is like game reps. It is nasty. It is physical. It’s intense. It’s as intense as any place I’ve ever been at.”
That is how a team overcomes a physical mismatch.
“Measurable-wise, we won’t be an Alabama or a Clemson, so they’ll try to take advantage of that,” safety Khalil Williams said. “That’s when our physicality and training comes into play, and you take over.”
On the Sooners’ first snap of the second quarter Saturday, Perine caught a swing pass and turned upfield. Sophomore safety Garrett Davis, all 6-1, 200 pounds of him, gives up 35 pounds to Perine. Davis raced forward and launched himself into Perine’s body. Perine’s left shoulder, already banged up, took the brunt of the hit, and he didn’t play much after that.
“Here a guy is, right at 200 pounds, a safety coming up and he ain’t going at the ankles,” McKnight said. “He’s going for the torso. That was a big momentum swing for our guys. At least from our sideline, you could feel a little different.”
Asked if football has to be coached the way he coaches, Herman said, “I don’t know that it has to, but it’s the one proven way so far.”
He is convinced that the work his players have done more than levels the playing field against the Oklahomas and Florida States and their five-star recruits.
Said Herman: “It’s our edge.”