Allen Park — Footballs aren’t the only kind of balls on the grass at the Lions practice field.
During drills, coaches use medicine balls, tennis balls, aerobics balls and orange balls that look like giant kickballs.
Each drill using the variety of balls has a purpose and gives coaches the chance to teach fundamentals with something other than blocking sleds or tackling dummies.
“There’s always an evolution in teaching and instruction,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “And we want to try to stay on the cutting edge of it, to utilize anything we possibly can to find an edge to try to get our guys better. There’s a number of different things that guys use in terms of apparatus that are a bit different than the old school, just the sleds and that’s it.”
Caldwell referred to the drills as “healthy,” but some players said they were caught off guard by the equipment.
“It’s not the drills that are weird,” safety Nate Ness said. “It’s when you add the equipment to it to change it up a little bit, that’s what’s weird at times.”
Tennis balls have been a staple at Lions practice for years. Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek will bounce balls while linemen run around giant rings, a drill that helps players keep their pad level low and focus on finishing by grabbing the ball.
But, the offensive line coaches added drills with the tennis balls this year.
One drill is called the “tennis ball redirect,” and challenges linemen to react quickly to the balls flying from a variety of directions, similar to how they keep their eyes open for pass rushers and their knees bent and pads low.
The linemen also use medicine balls for a drill that helps them extend their hips. The players have to push the balls away from their body then hit the blocking sled, which mimics run blocking. It also helps players work on their punches.
The secondary also has a few uses for different balls. In one drill, the cornerbacks and safeties have to track an aerobics ball then lift it up.
“It works because the ball is rolling, so you have to get down low to be able to get down under it and scoop it up,” safety Glover Quin said. “And that’s kind of how you tackle. You’ve got to get low, and you’ve got to bring your hips and all that stuff.”
The giant orange balls are a way for the defensive backs to work on avoiding cut blocks, which are hard to replicate safely during practice. Essentially, players have to maintain their footing while moving laterally away from the ball then continue running toward the carrier.
Cornerback Rashean Mathis said the orange balls are a favorite of safeties coach Alan Williams.
“He takes the big ball a little more seriously than most, so he gets us into it and makes it fun,” Mathis said.
The offensive linemen also have a drill that helps them work on cut blocking, but it involves tackling bags. Coaches will toss the long blue bags in the air as players try to launch it using their hands or shoulders.
“You’ve got to work on cutting,” offensive tackle Michael Williams said. “With the way we’re running our offense this year, I feel like cutting will be a big part of it. You’ve got to work on it somehow. You can’t cut your players, so you’ve got to figure out a drill to try to get practice on it.”
As odd as some of the drills sound, players seem to think they’re working. Between the drill work and strength and conditioning, defensive end Phillip Hunt said he’s added eight pounds of muscle since signing in February.
“All the drills make sense,” Mathis said. “Each coach has their own preference, but they’re football related always.”