Broncos players love Nathaniel Hackett’s soft-touch training camp
Nathaniel Hackett couldn’t have been more clear on the eve of his first training camp as the Broncos’ head coach. The way that the Broncos used to hold training camp in years past were gone; his camps would be about instruction and minimal physical effort in order to avoid injury.
“It’s practice; we’re on the field and we want to do every single thing you possibly can. I think (you need to be) able to sit back and understand it is a marathon – a long camp and long preseason. I think that’s something that I learned over time,” Hackett said from the cavernous Pat Bowlen Fieldhouse. “You can’t just go crazy in these first couple of days, you have to slowly work them into it. You have to make sure that you’re giving them enough time to recover, because the season is different with this 17th game and then the playoffs. We just have to make sure that everybody is fresh. I think that’s so important. So, to be able to work — there’s that fine balance between working everybody hard enough — but at the same time, letting them recover and letting them be able to get to that highest level they possibly can as we progress throughout the season.”
The Broncos’ notably casual “jog-through” practices have been jarring to longtime fans and former players, who often endured long, physical practices in the summer heat that left them exhausted. But Hackett explained that they would make sense, especially given the new schemes that his new coaching staff would bring to Denver.
“No one really knows what we put on those guys, especially at the beginning of camp,” the head coach said. “You just bombard them with every single thing that you have in the playbook for the first seven or eight days.”
Pass-rusher Bradley Chubb, whose career has been marred with injuries, stood to benefit more than most from the Broncos’ nearly touch-less training camp. And he was on board with anything that might end the Broncos’ five-season-long losing streak.
“I don’t think it compares when you have a whole new culture shift, with a (new) quarterback, coach, owner —everybody gets excited,” he said last Wednesday. “The guys that have been here, we feel the change as well. We feel the energy changing.”
Left tackle Garett Bolles suggested that the lack of significant content didn’t stop the Broncos from learning their new offense at a normal pace.
“I think practice is practice. You can take something out of everything every single day. Just because we’re not in pads doesn’t mean you can’t be physical with your hands, or moving your feet and getting in front your guys, and working on your craft and working on your technique,” the newly 30-year-old Bolles explained. “Just because you’re in pads, it’s a little different, because it’s more game-like. When you’re just in helmets or shoulder pads, you still can work on your technique and do the things you need to do to get better.”
That’s exactly the plan, according to Hackett.
“Volume and those high intensity, popping pads, those are the things that we want to protect them from on this one,” Hackett explained on Wednesday. “We still want them to run. It gets you a lot of mental reps, but they’re still moving. They’re still running. They’re still getting yardages — which is what we want to give them — but we want to do it the right way. With all the different science that’s coming out, you can still give them the work that they need, but you’re not putting them into continually hitting each other over and over again or running at those super top-end speeds. They still get a great workout.”
For players like tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who’s battled with injuries and is saddled with newfound responsibilities after Noah Fant — last year’s starter — was dealt to Seattle as part of the trade package for quarterback Russell Wilson.
“I’m really appreciative of that — just how he looks after us as players and gives us a day off. I think it’s important and it’s really good, because he’s going to make sure everyone comes out tomorrow feeling great and we can have a really good, competitive practice,” Okwuegbunam said on Wednesday, explaining how the less-taxing practices actually increase focus on the mental aspects of the game. “That’s the beauty of it. At first, it’s a lot — a lot of complexities and intricate details, so it was a lot of information and a lot to get done in the spring. Now, all those fine details and little parts have been put together, and now it’s just getting those little things and making sure things are just smoothed out.”
Wide receiver Jerry Jeudy is still in the smoothing-out period of his career, but in the wake of a non-contact ACL injury to fellow receiver Tim Patrick that ended Patrick’s season (one that not even Hackett’s light practices could help to avoid, Jeudy now knows that the mental game is at least as important as the physical one.
“Just a little bit of more mental rep instead of actually going full speed,” he said last Friday. “It’ll take care of our body a little bit and just focus on the plays and the mental rep of the plays.”
For Hackett, this isn’t a touchy-feely, nouveau style of coaching; it’s an understanding that today’s NFL teams succeed more on timing, speed and execution than brute force. But since the physicality of the game can’t be fully removed, Hackett’s trying to do the next best thing: minimize it.
“I go through everything scientifically, meeting with everybody here and trying to figure out the best way to make the guys improve and not have any setback or anything like that,” he said last week. “In the end, it’s about availability. You want the whole year; you want all the guy that we need. So I want to be sure they are doing everything the right way and learning how to take care of their bodies. That’s always a big thing when young guys come in — even some veterans. They need to learn every day how to take care of their bodies.”
Linebacker Malik Reed is entering his fourth season in the NFL, and he’s noticing a difference already.
“I have noticed a big difference in how my body has felt now than in the past three years. I feel like it’s a credit to Coach Hackett and the emphasis he puts into making sure you’re taking care of your bodies and making sure you’re ready to go hard the next day,” he said on Wednesday. Reed turns 26 on Friday. “It’s huge. We know it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You get through the preseason — get through three preseason games, the rest of the training camp practices and then when you hit the season, you want to be fresh. You want to be ready to go. You don’t want to be going there with lingering injuries, whether it’s a hamstring, some soft tissue injuries, and stuff like that. I feel like these days help those type of things and getting the body ready to be not only prepared for those preseason games, but getting ready for the season, as well… I feel like with how up-tempo our practices are, running to each drill and some of the up-tempo our offense is doing, I feel like we’re in a good position to go out and play in a game — right now.”
Kareem Jackson’s been in the league much longer, and the veteran safety joked about the more relaxed environment.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s my 13th camp, so dialing it back every third day — he can dial it back every second day if he wants. I won’t argue with him at all. It’s great; it’s all in the name of getting to the season healthy.”
Health notwithstanding, the biggest concern among critics is that the lack of physicality will negatively impact the offensive and defensive lines, and they may turn out to be right. But Hackett’s accounted for that, too — the Broncos’ don’t do seven-on-seven practice drills anymore; now, everyone’s involved.
“Yeah, that is why I do that period at the end. Since there is not as much football — less practices — I think that 11-on-11 is so critical. It’s more important than anything,” Hackett explained on Monday. “Since there are not a lot of times that you line up, you (usually) don’t line up with any rush. Everybody runs seven guys for seven guys. I think more 11-on-11 — with the lack of practice that we have — I think it’s so important.
Courtland Sutton said that those drills are paying dividends, with or without full pads.
“The defense is battling with us, and they’ve been winning some reps,” Sutton said on Tuesday.
In fact, safety Justin Simmons and second-year cornerback Pat Surtain II have consistently been the best players on the field, but Sutton insists that Wilson’s offense is catching up quickly.
“The offense and myself are continuing to push back at those guys, because at the end of the day, if we’re not battling and if it’s super one-sided, then I guess you could say there’s a problem,” the wideout added. “When there’s a constant battle out there and the defense gets their wins and we get our wins, it’s continuing to allow us to go out there and compete. It’s so fun to be able to go into the team meetings and hear how animated the defense and offense gets at who won the day. It’s good competition and brings good energy, because guys are coming out and competing at their best every day. That’s all we can ask: for the guys to show up and continue to battle every single day. It’s only going to make us better at the end of the day.”