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Defensive Back Q&A Session: Mike Niklos


With season 8 of BOOM Football on pause we are taking a deep dive at the background of High Performance Coach Mike Niklos. During his playing days he was a 4-time All-American at Robert Morris University in Pennsylvania. Below is a full-interview with Niklos that was conducted this week.

How old were you when you started playing DB?

I had never played DB until my junior year of high school; I was a quarterback. I started our first game at corner but was awful at that position. I got too nervous playing on that island and would trip over myself every time I tried to guard a route. The next game they moved me to Strong Safety/Hybrid Linebacker and just let me react more in tighter spaces. As my confidence grew, the following year I would play corner sporadically if we needed to play more match up games, but primarily stayed inside the box.

I was recruited more for the receiver position and it wasn't until my freshman year of college I played a more traditional Defensive Back position. I played corner if we were in a man-based defense and safety if we were in a zone.

What’s the biggest difference between corner and safety?

Safety is a more read based position, and corner is a more reactive based position. In that I mean a safety's pre reads will heavily dominate their path, and route recognition will determine their on-site adjustments. They also have to be the "quarterback" of the defense so have a much more global perspective of the defense/offensive scheme to make adjustments pre-snap. The corner position's lens is much more limited as they are further away from the action and it minimizes their viewpoint on what their focus is. Generally, their adjustments are more on-site (once snap of the ball happens) based on the receiver, and their focus is more limited to 1-3 receivers when looking at the pass game (depending on coverage).

Who’s the hardest working defensive back you played with or against?

I think the hardest working defensive back I played with was Robb Butler who ended up playing a few years in the league. He was a senior when I was a freshman in college. He was similar to the path I had with a positional change (started at Pitt as a WR and then transferred to RMU as a DB). When I first got there, he was someone I tried to mimic as much as I could. From his work ethic on the field, to his addictiveness to the tactical side of the game. Most players emphasized their athletic ability, their technical ability, or their tactical ability: where I felt Rob did a great job balancing everything which made him a more well-rounded player. He was also one of the first players that would stay after practice, longer in the film room, or sit at the lunch table and answer any of my questions to become a better ball player. So, he was someone I tried to mold myself into both how I approached the game, but also my teammates.

Most natural corner you’ve worked with, why?

I would have to say Julian Love was the most natural corner I've worked with. It is tough with the corner position because there is no one technique. It is such a reactive position, that you have to have so many tools in the toolbox and your style has to change and adapt to the receiver/coverage/variables you're going against. There are though, a few commonalities that make a DB natural, one being a sense of predicting movements. You have to be able to have a sense of when a receiver is going to do something, and Julian always seemed to be able to predict better than anyone I've coached. That is a quality that cannot be coached, but one that can be enhanced with correct exposure. Julian did a great job of making sure that he was always a student of the game, either watching receivers move when he wasn't in, when he was in learning from each rep, or asking great situational questions to increase his tactical ability to predict accordingly.

Do you prefer a corner on or off the ball?

I think both have their time and place, but if I were to pick one it would be off-corner. I always played with the mindset if I didn't want the receiver to catch the ball I would play on the line. If I wanted to make a big play/interception I would play off. I think playing off corner personally was my biggest strength, so that may be where my bias comes from. The confidence and patience that you have to have playing off in my opinion is one of the hardest things to do in sport. To say that a receiver is going to sprint at you full speed and at any moment go any direction he wants is by far one of the scariest things in sport. To me it was also why I loved playing off, it was the ultimate challenge and if you can learn to play it well, there is a lot of money to be made. I think it is also a quality that should be learned in high school. Lot of guys will go to camps and play press all day long and not show any other skill sets other than that. If you think about it, generally to play early in college you'll be a package guy. So if the offense is in 10 personnel they will bring a package with more cover guys. Usually the DB over the slot is playing off, so college coaches are looking at guys who can come in early and play that position.

Who is the most physical defensive back you’ve worked with?

Diamond Evans is probably the most physical. Even though he is a bigger corner naturally, he plays much bigger than he actually is. Between his frame and his incredibly long arms, there is no way that you are getting by him without engaging in some sort of contact which he always seemed to enjoy. He was able to give an incredible stunning punch while keeping himself in position for any countermovement and keep himself in phase. A lot of receivers will welcome that contact, because they can use the aggressiveness to their advantage, where Diamond was so meticulous with his punches, that he did an amazing job making sure he never took himself away from the play. As a receiver, he is probably the one guy I would not have wanted to go against.

Biggest piece of advice you’d give an athlete during COVID-19?

I think it is a perfect opportunity to take a step back and rebuild your foundational technique. I think sometimes we get so caught up looking at the big picture we forget how many movements go into being a successful DB. To me it's very easy to do these extensive long duration drills (backpedal, open, open, open, down, up, high point), But it's very difficult to say I'm going to focus on having the intent to do every movement with purpose. I think that is the biggest difference between good DB's and great DB's is how meticulous their intent is. I think this is the perfect time to throw some headphones on, go out in the backyard and visualize guarding a receiver and creating situational drills and walk/jog/sprint through them. The great part about visualizing routes and going through it, you are allowed to stop/rewind/slow every step of the way. It's like a live film session where you can adapt on the spot to make it perfect. I would love to see more of that and less of drills that are constant movement for 20 seconds.

What are some drills DB’s can work ok alone?

Piggybacking on the last answer, this gives you a chance to coach yourself. Again, I think the abundance of training/social media/skill coaches is a double edge sword, it can be an athlete’s greatest advantage or their biggest downfall. As coaches we are able to coach athletes’ things that we wish we knew back then or organize sessions in a way that we feel are best. The downside to that is we start to be really good at drills and not good in situations. The DB position is one of the most reactive positions in sports, meaning no rep is ever the same, yet we do closed pattern drills (predetermined or off a coach/ball not receiver) that look the same every time. When you are by yourself you can create specific situations that you have personally gone against or been able to watch/see on T.V./film. Once we do that, we can truly understand the why of the movement and create a more unconscious competence of that movement. If you can truly create that, your reactive ability will increase dramatically and allow you to make more plays on the ball that you previously were just out of reach.

Biggest mistake young defensive backs make?

I think the biggest mistake that I see at the younger levels is not understanding the 'why'. I think that is a big reason for a lot of the basic mistakes we see from any level. To me, making sure I hold my leverage if I'm outside technique makes complete sense. I may have specific help inside, it's an area that based on the coverage I'm giving up, or its end of the game and I have to make sure I keep them in bounds. The high school kid may not see the why behind playing outside technique, so they do not see the importance of it and lose it quickly. One of the biggest things I feel a coach can do when they teach (educate) a skillset is ask the DB why they think this "technical/tactical" skill is important to have. Once they understand the why of a technique/tactical ability it is much easier for them to understand and therefore successfully comply with what the coach wants. Now when they are out there on the field by themselves and not have a coach there telling them what to do, they can adapt and place themselves in the proper position/technique/tactable scenario because they understand the why.

Should DB’s work on catching the ball?

Yes! I'm going to go back to Julian Love and after his first year of college he came back and with all college athletes we try to interview them about their first year, and how we did preparing them. We ask for the things we did well and the things we can get better at. The first thing he said we should have done more of was ball drills. It was something I think we all do and have ball drills in the back burner of our exercise pool, and if we did them, they were just very generic: run forward, run to the side, run backwards or catch the ball at its highest point. But if you look at those basic drills are we really preparing them to catch at specific angles, while in different positions, generally under some sort of contact from the receiver. After we spoke, we developed more specific ball drills that had a much higher transfer to the types of catches they will make within a game, along with specific ways to make sure if you are not going to catch the ball to ensure the receiver does not. I think it is a huge portion that does not get trained the way it should these days, so we try to make it an emphasis in our progressions we design for defensive backs.

Hardest part of the field to defend?

Mid-level routes are by far the hardest routes to defend. Strategically (when speaking about man-based defense), a DB's goal is to stop the short ball and stop the long ball. You have to depend on your line/linebackers to stop the mid-level routes. With a short route, generally your triangle (tackle, RB, QB) will tell you if it's a 3-step route so you can prep for it and create the correct angle to the receiver. Deep routes you generally have the sideline as your help or have some sort of safety help, so the quarters that you have to guard in become more minimal, not to mention deep balls can be harder throws and catch (especially at the younger levels). The mid-routes not only take more time to develop which means the defensive back has to be more patient, hold their leverage longer, etc. but traditionally mid-level routes are more horizontal in nature which can create more advantage for the receiver. Your job is to be in position to make the tackle, or else hope that your lineman/linebackers got enough pressure and created an erratic throw that you can take advantage of and make a play.

Favorite type of coverage to run or see run?

That's easy, zero coverage. You versus the receiver, no better matchup in sport. I think if that isn't your favorite coverage as a Defensive Back then it might not be the position for you!

See Coach Mike Niklos’ defensive back training videos!

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