Improvement on the football field, just as it does in life, can come about in a variety of ways.
There are the direct methods – practicing a play or move or action over and over again until it becomes second nature. There are indirect options, such as weight room work and film study, which help build the body and mind, boosting the ability to perform both physically and mentally.
And then, there’s the gray area in between – one that doesn’t preclude hard work, but one that is difficult to quantify. It’s there that WVU running back Alec Sinkfield lived during an offseason in which he was tasked with one goal above others. The assignment? Make defenders miss more tackles.
Before diving into Sinkfield’s approach, it should be noted that directives such as the one Sinkfield received from his position coach, Chad Scott, are simple on the surface, but more difficult to approach with a specific plan. If achieved, the end result is obvious, and the benefits tangible, but how does a player get there?
Most goals have clear work paths. Need to add strength and weight? Diet and exercise plans are set. Improve throwing accuracy? Work on mechanics. Lessen fumbling? Emphasize the lock points of holding the football. So how does one go about practicing the art of making defenders miss tackles?
“The first thing is just believing that you can do it. I always knew that I could do it,” said Sinkfield, who saw his redshirt freshman year of 2018 sidetracked with ankle injuries. “This year we really emphasized that every time you get the ball, the first person in front of you can’t tackle you, and good luck to the second person.”
The mental approach is, without doubt, important. But how to keep those big linebackers from drawing a bead, or safeties with just as much speed from making the play? Here, the reasoning becomes tougher to explain, but it’s one that makes sense to the Boynton Beach, Florida native. There aren’t specific moves he worked on, or plans to unleash ahead of time. It’s more a flow of the game thing.
“You watch your favorite NFL players. You get ideas from them,” Sinkfield said. “But making moves is just instinct. You play what you see. The main focus was winning more than you lose in the open field.”
The redshirt junior has emerged from two seasons in which he hasn’t had the best chances to show what he can do. The injury woes of 2018 spilled into a 2019 season in which he was lined up as a slot receiver at times, and had two fewer rushing attempts (17) than in his injury-plagued 2018 campaign. Now back as a full-time performer in the backfield, he already has 28 carries for 187 yards (6.7 per carry) and two scores in just three games this year. He’s also kept the receiving game in his repertoire, with five grabs for 32 yards out of the backfield. In both phases, he’s shown off his improved ability to get by opposing tacklers.
“Dealing with those ankle injuries and not being able to play to my full potential, it was definitely frustrating,” he said, reviewing the start of his Mountaineer career. “This year, thanks to COVID, I had a lot of time to really work on myself and focus on the things I needed to get better at. That was really the difference from last year to this year.”
Sinkfield has also added punt return duties to his list, which gives him another chance to make tacklers miss. While the changes in collegiate punting, which emphasize lots of hangtime and directional boots, have limited return chances, he wants to make the most of the opportunities he does get.
After a 2019 season in which he had nine returns for 38 yards, he has had six runbacks this year, albeit for just 16 yards, and wants to improve on those numbers. He has had a couple of return chances that got away due to letting the ball bounce and a fair catch, leading to his approach on future returns.
“Moving forward, taking more chances,” he said of his goal of helping the Mountaineer special teams. “It’s understanding where my blocking is going to be, getting vertical and getting as many yards as I can.”