If anyone knows how to develop players into dominant pass rushers, it’s Craig Kuligowski, the Defensive Line Coach at the University of Missouri. Coach “Kool’s” NFL ready methods have produced 10 draft picks, three in the first round since 2009. Last season, Mizzou led the SEC and set the school record for sacks with 44, highlighted by Shane Ray earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year status. Mike Kuchar sat down with Coach Kuligowski to talk about how he assesses his players and the process he uses to develop them into terrific pass rushers.
An Interview with Craig Kuligowski, Defensive Line Coach, University of Missouri
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
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If anyone knows how to develop players into dominant pass rushers, it’s Craig Kuligowski, the Defensive Line Coach at the University of Missouri. Coach “Kool’s” NFL ready methods have produced 10 draft picks, three in the first round since 2009. Last season, Mizzou led the SEC and set the school record for sacks with 44, highlighted by Shane Ray earning SEC Defensive Player of the Year status. Mike Kuchar (MK) sat down with Coach Kuligowski (CK) to talk about how he assesses his players and the process he uses to develop them into terrific pass rushers.
Mike Kuchar (MK): What makes a great pass rusher?
Craig Kuligowski (CK): Many of them have that unblockable mentality. You have to believe that they (offensive lineman) can’t block you. They may come in with it (that attitude), but it gets washed away really quickly. It needs to get built up. There is no defensive lineman I’ve ever met that doesn’t want to sack the quarterback.
MK: Why are your players such effective pass rushers?
CK: We take the mentality that if we don’t know if it’s run or pass we are going to play the pass. We are going to stop the run on the way to the passer. We are going to penetrate. We attack and react instead of using block reaction then find the ball. You can’t rush the quarterback playing the run first. What we do drill wise, better show up on the football field.
MK: What is the pre-snap and post-snap visual landmark you use on your pass rush?
CK: The first thing they key is the ball with their periphery. The second thing they key is the screws of the helmet. High hat= pass. Block down = close the trap.
MK: How do you teach hand placement on your pass rush?
CK: Well, hands and feet have to go together. Every drill involves the hands. When we run circles, we use hands. We do the sled. We overemphasize the hands.
MK: What is the process you use to decipher which pass rush moves work for each kid?
CK: Every kid is not good with every move. We do one on one pass rush every day. I watch them to see what works better and what doesn’t work. The real challenge is getting them to do what they do well and try to make them better. Instead of doing what they want to do or do every move. When you do too much, you lose. They have a tendency to try and overwhelm and opponent.
MK: Is there a set number of moves you teach? What is too much? What is too little?
CK: I teach them everything and they find the ones they use most effectively. It’s really a sales job to get them to do it. It depends on each player. I see what he does. We teach power rush, club rip, club swim, chop rip and speed rush and we teach a swim. Off all that stuff we can combination into one thousand moves. We might do club and rip and hit the tricep. Now some kids are using shake club rip or some are better and stabbing the outside hand and then progressing to club rip. Or I can go club rip and the offensive line pushes my hip and now I spin back to the quarterback. We have all those combinations just for that guy.
MK: Do you cross train your perimeter pass rushers with your interior pass rushers?
CK: Yes, but some moves are more accessible on the outside.
MK: What are some problem areas that arise in the pass rush?
CK: Does a kid come off the ball or does he stand straight up? Does he expose his chest? Is he not getting off the ball fast enough? Those are the main issues I try to address.
MK: What’s the mentality of your get-off? How do you coach that?
CK: You never want to go off on cadence as much as possible. You need to move on the ball. When the ball is snapped, where are you on the line of scrimmage? Have you gone past? Are you still in a stance? If you don’t do that well, you can’t be successful. When we’re not successful, we don’t penetrate.
MK: Talk to me about how you teach stance?
CK: We want to be in a stance comparable to a 40-yard stance. We are in pass rush stance every down. We are at least toe to heel, feet shoulder width apart, hands out in front of my head. If I put my hand down, I will be onside. My butt should be above my head.
MK: How do you solve hand placement issues?
CK: Players come off the ball without using the right aiming point. We talk about where to put the hands. We use six-point sled progressions and on the bags. It takes a while to develop.
MK: How much time in practice do you devote in the pass rush in practice?
CK: Should be no less than 50/50 with run. Even if we play option teams, we still are equal with our time. If not, we don’t play as well.
MK: What are the drills you need to do on a daily basis in the pass game?
CK: You have to develop some kind of system where your guys are doing the moves you want them to do. They have to do this in a repetitive fashion, such as four times in a row. You have to do them all year long. If we are having a problem with something, we will interject another drill. I have drills that teach moves and drills that teach athleticism such as change directions, bending, turning your hips. You have to keep a combination of both of those.
MK: How do you train the eyes of your players?
CK: We key the ball for get-off, then we key the helmet screws for reaction. We key read progressions: down block, high hat, out blocks. Once the ball is snapped, we stare at the defender and not the ball because then you tend to play too high. We have very basic keys and that’s what we focus on.
MK: Can you elaborate on the coaching points of your twist moves?
CK: In your game plan you must find out what you think are going to work. The key is sell the speed rush or the power rush and then go into the twist. You need to sell it. Fundamentally, the first guy needs to collision to set up a pick while the second guy’s job is to come tightly off him.
MK: What is something else that you use to prepare your players?
CK: I have a tape on every team we have played and I show them every time they get beat on a move. When we go into a game, we know what beats him. This guy can get beat on the speed rush. This guy stands right up. We can jab olay on this player, etc.
MK: How do you teach the proper level and eye discipline for rushers to get to the quarterback?
CK: We have different rush points. On every snap, one rusher is a contain rusher whose aiming point is to keep outside no matter what. One is a level rush where you get to the level of the quarterback and work back inside. We don’t really over coach that because when you are in the middle of a fight, we don’t want to worry about deciphering if you are working to the quarterback’s front shoulder or back shoulder. Then we have two-way guys, inside or outside, just go and beat the guy.
The Four Essential Drills in Developing a Pass Rusher
The following four drills are done at a daily basis by Coach Kuligowski at the University of Missouri and he credits the recent success of his players due to the development of these drills.
The philosophy and coaching points of each drill are described by Coach Kuligowski.
Coach Kuligowski’s D-Line Drill Video…
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Here’s a sample of what you’ll find in the full-length version of our exclusive interview with Coach Kuligowski’s interview…
- 4 drills Coach Kuligowski uses with his defensive linemen on a daily basis starting in camp… including his coaching points and video of the drills.
- Why he has his players in a pass rush stance on every down.
- The pass rush aiming points he uses to defend mobile quarterbacks… including the difference between a left and right side defensive end.
- What he tells his defensive line to do against RPO concepts.
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Developing a dominant pass rusher is more process than anything else. Once they are taught the essentials of getting their hands and feet in the right place, they will have success as pass rushers. These drills, when done with a great deal of repetition, help to establish that success.