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Merril Hoge sees safer game in choosing All-Fundamental Team

By Bill Bradley, contributing editor

For the sixth year, USA Football announced its All-Fundamental Team on Wednesday, featuring 26 players whose skills are considered worthy of emulating for youth football players.

Former NFL running back and ESPN analyst Merril Hoge, who is a member of the USA Football Heads Up Football Advisory Committee, was part of the group that selected the All-Fundamental Team. On Tuesday, he talked with NFL Evolution about making his picks for the team, the most fundamental player in the NFL and how he sees the head being taken out of the game.

How did you get involved in this committee?

It's part of being on the USA Football board. It's really my youth football coaching experience and camps that I ran (that got me involved). It's through all those relationships over time is how I got involved in it.

How does the selection process take place?

This is how I do it: I give all my thoughts and ideas from watching tape and watching guys play the game right -- playing fundamentally sound football. ... The thing that I've always stressed is that when you're fundamentally sound in the game of football -- or really any sport -- you're safer, too. It's not just that you can function better or you play the game better, you're a safer player. ... I look for guys that play the game right. It is a physical game and being fundamentally sound is about being physical, but doing it in the correct way. That's what I look for. I send them my thoughts on all the players that I like. We have a list and some guys made the team, but there are other guys who are fundamentally sound that unfortunately weren't on the team.

Area there are any individuals on the team that impress you most that most epitomize what the team is about?

I will tell you a guy who is about as fundamentally sound a player that I've really ever witnessed coming out of college and then transitioned to the league. He speaks to how the more fundamentally sound you are at your position, the easier it will be to transition to the NFL. That player is (Oakland Raiders linebacker) Khalil Mack. He is just mind-boggling how he plays. He looks likes like he is so far advanced fundamentally. He was like that in college and that is what has allowed him to be so successful in his transition to the NFL.

Are there any coaching staffs teaching what the All-Fundamentals Team is all about.

Honestly, all these coaches in this league are good coaches. It's hard to point out one staff. I will say this, though. I think Seattle has done a good job with their tackling techniques. ... They have shown great drills in helping a player execute that in a game. Those kind of things seldom do I get enamored or excited about (in coaching), but what I saw in the Seahawks' drills, I was. Their job of always evolving and seeing how they can prepare their players shows they do a great job. But you go to any NFL camp and the coaches do a really good job of their coaching and teaching and developing the tools to be successful on the field.

Is the head being taken out of football as officials would like?

There's no question. You see it more and more now in that players are much better in not striking with the dome. They're not leading with the head. The deliberateness of leading with the head and launching has dropped drastically. If you really think about it, what we tried to stress when we started (the All-Fundamental Team) is that we're not changing anything; we're just cleaning up some things that have eroded over time.

If you go back and think of some of the great teachers in this game, (former Pittsburgh Steelers coach) Chuck Noll was an good example. I played for him for five years. He would harp you to not leave your feet. "Leaving your feet you become an ineffective player. You become a dangerous player. You have no strength and power or control. We don't want you to leave our feet." Think about that and see what happens. It wasn't against the rules to launch years ago, but that's how it eroded. You don't teach that. Nobody's on the field teaching that.

I always tell the people go to the game early and watch the linebackers warm up. They will be syncing their hips. They will have their knees bent and they'll be shuffling down the line. They strike up. They bring their arms up. They wrap up their buddies. What are they doing? They're executing the art of how you tackle. You don't see them throwing themselves around and launching at each other. So, the game eroded a little bit and getting it cleaned up has been the goal and objective.

Are we starting to see the Heads Up tackling techniques seep into the pros or is that still a few years away?

It's there in high fashion, quite honestly. Watching NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, for example, I could have done a highlight reel on them every week for their (fundamental) play. There was one thing that we changed (at USA Football). I've got to give (fellow advisory committee member) LaVar Arrington the credit. We've always been taught to keep your head in front of the runner. In one of our meetings, LaVar was just talking and said, "Guys, I hate doing that. That hurts." LaVar's about as big as they come and made a really good point. I don't care how strong your neck is, you stick your head out in front of even me at 210 (pounds) coming around the corner full speed, I'm going to do some damage on your neck. That's the only thing we changed. We got rid of that because it really made a lot of sense. I thought it was a great suggestion.

(Getting the head out of the game) is what we're really trying to encourage and that's where the arms are so important and playing behind your shoulder pads. Then you really are forced to play fundamentally sound against a player that has an angle on you. I just see (the head out of the game) more and more. I'm watching tape right now and you see them playing much better in terms of how they tackle and how they approach and how they strike.

It sounds like you enjoy being part of the committee picking this team.

I love it. I love this game. We're talking about the fundamentals of this game, but the life lessons that stem from it at all levels are massive. I don't know if there's another area where you use things as young men like that. Part of it is discipline and work ethic, being accountable and responsible. All of those apply to everyday life. When you can teach these things and they translate into life skills and life work, that's a win-win.

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