By Jeff Owens/Photos by Allen Sharpe
South Carolina linebacker coach Mike Peterson is old-school.
He played linebacker on Steve Spurrier's 1996 national championship team. In 1998, he was All-SEC and an All-American. He played for 14 years in the NFL, making 883 tackles, 21.5 sacks and 19 career interceptions.
He is old-school football.
Peterson is not a big fan of the way the game is played today, especially the complex, highly-technical, up-tempo offense, like his Gamecocks will run.
"I played when it was real football," Peterson said with a laugh Thursday. "I think that's probably why they got this CTE thing. Now they are playing pretty ball."
Peterson is coaching South Carolina's defensive ends and Buck linebackers. He likes what he sees out of his guys, especially pass rushers D.J. Wonnum, Bryson Allen-Williams and up-and-coming DE Aaron Sterling. He admits, though, that South Carolina's new high-powered offense, which is predicated on the run-pass option, is tough to defend.
"It's real tough with the tempo and RPOs," he said. "They have a number of running backs and wide receivers. I think we are getting a good test in practice to get us prepared for the season."
Peterson and other defensive coaches also have had to alter the way they coach tackling because of new rules in college football and the NFL that prohibit lowering the helmet and initiating head-first contact. In college football, a player can be ejected for leading with the helmet under the targeting rule.
For coaches like Peterson, they are having to go back to the fundamentals of tackling.
"Back when I played you could just leave your feet and go for the kill shot," he said. "Now it's keeping your head up. I try to tell the guys, hit them with your chest. Duck your head and that guy is going to move."
RPO offenses, which spread the field with multiple playmakers and change plays instantly based on the alignment of the defense, make it even more challenging.
"RPOs, it's always a lot of moving parts with this game now," Peterson said. "It's about having good eyes. If your eyes are bad, your feet are going to be bad. It's getting back to the fundamentals of football."
The reason for the changes, of course, is because of the prevalence of CTE, a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have had multiple head injuries. It is common among football players and athletes in contact sports who have suffered multiple concussions.
Having played the game for most of this life, Peterson, 42, has seen numerous former teammates and peers suffer from the disease. He has no regrets, however.
"I blessed a lot of people over my career. I wouldn't take it back at all," he said. "I've blessed a lot of people. I helped a lot of people on my way. If I'm a guy with CTE or whatever, so be it.
"Do I wish I knew then what I know now, yeah. But would I change anything? I probably wouldn't. It was an opportunity for me. My mom is comfortable now, my grandma. I wouldn't change anything. The kids are living good. I signed up for it, so it is what it is."
The son of a football coach, Peterson is now regarded as one of the best linebacker coaches in the country. He joined Will Muschamp's staff at Florida as a strength and conditioning coach and followed him to South Carolina in 2016.
He has helped numerous NFL prospects throughout his coaching career, but is not sure he would be able to play today's game. The adjustment to the new rules would be difficult for an old-school linebacker like him.
"I don't know if I would have made it," he said.
Peterson believes NFL players will have a difficult time this season adjusting to new rules that limit head-first contact.
"It's going to be tough. … I think it's going to be really difficult," he said. "A lot of guys I played with, I don't think they could play now. I'm not sure I could play. When you go to make a tackle and you are using your technique, I'm not thinking, I'm not going to do this, I'm going to do that. A lot of hits are bang-bang hits. He ducks his head, now I'm in the wrong.
"You never think about that."