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A new rule in college football this season is intended to penalize illegal hits and reduce injuries.
Florida linebacker Jon Bostic (right) levels Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater during action in the Sugar Bowl.
Oregon State’s Markus Wheaton (right) takes a hard hit from Washington State defender Casey Locker. Locker was flagged for unnecessary roughness.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013
BLACKSBURG — Earlier this month, an ACC official visited with Virginia Tech to go over some of college football’s new rules, including the sport’s extra emphasis on targeting.
It’s been illegal to purposely launch yourself at an opponent above the shoulders since 2008, worthy of a 15-yard penalty for each infraction. But starting this year, the offending player will also be ejected.
A short video of hits that were deemed legal and illegal helped explain the differences, although there’s plenty of gray area.
“Oh my god, it’s not a big difference at all,” Virginia Tech secondary coach Torrian Gray said. “Some hits that we saw with our eyes — ‘Oh, that was low’ — they said that would have been an illegal hit. It definitely makes it tough. That’s why I say we as coaches have to emphasize it with players.”
It’s a conversation taking place in every locker room in the country. Not that defensive coordinators teach their players to target, but with the consequences so severe, they’re not taking any chances.
“We’ve never taught targeting anybody,” Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said. “If we collision hit, I’m ticked off, because that’s not what we teach. … I think the deliberate ones, where guys are really trying to decapitate guys, are going to be the ones that will get the calls. After that, I think it’s just going to be football. You’ve got to still be able to play the game.”
The NCAA has defined the rules clearly. Officials will look for players who initiate above-the-shoulder contact with a defenseless player using the crown of their helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder. An emphasis is being put on players who launch themselves, thrusting upward or leaving their feet to hit the head or neck.
While this could happen on any play in football (and often to unsuspecting players on special teams or after interceptions), it mostly happens in the secondary, with safeties or cornerbacks hitting receivers going up for a pass.
“I think we should always take care of each other,” Hokies safety Detrick Bonner said. “I mean, the sport is very physical, but you don’t want to hurt nobody, you don’t want to end no one’s career. I actually like the rule. We’ve just got to tackle better. That’s all.”
The tough part is judging a hit at full speed and trying to establish intent. Foster’s concern is that the slightest last-second alteration by a receiver could make what was intended to be a clean hit an illegal one, through no fault of the defensive back.
“The DB may not necessarily be targeting a guy, but if the receiver comes down and lowers his head, it looks like a head contact,” Foster said, pantomiming the move. “That could be considered tossing a guy out of the game. Right now they’re told if there’s any question, he’s out of the game.”
That has caused a stir in college football circles. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s famous hit of a Michigan running back in the Outback Bowl last season is another example. Officials explaining the targeting rule this offseason have noted that hit — in which Clowney’s helmet made contact to the back’s chest initially, but slid up to knock the player’s helmet off — could have resulted in an ejection.
It doesn’t apply to all brutal looking hits, however. While two Pittsburgh defenders didn’t see Hokies linebacker Ronny Vandyke’s takeout block coming last year on a punt return, it wasn’t illegal. Vandyke led with his shoulder and made contact below the defender’s shoulder.
If an ejection takes place in the first half, the player is out for the game. If it takes place in the second half, the player must sit out the first half of the next game, too.
There is a fail-safe provision. The ejection can be overturned by replay if officials determine no targeting took place, but that doesn’t eliminate the penalty.
“You hope it don’t come to that,” Bonner said.
Tech has gone about making sure its players understand how to approach tackling.
“Make sure if that’s a blow-up hit, you hit the guy low,” Gray said. “Because you don’t want to be anywhere close to the neck area where you leave it in the official’s hands.”
The NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel said there were 99 targeting penalties in major college games last year that would have resulted in an ejection. Gray, for one, knows a questionable ejection is bound to happen at some point this year somewhere in college football.
“There’s too many games for that scenario not to happen at least once,” Gray said. “Where there will probably be the observation of the general public or people who are viewing it, and the officials might see it differently. It’s just kind of human nature.”
The key is making sure that doesn’t affect a player’s aggressiveness. This is, after all, a contact sport.
“The game demands physical activity,” Tech rover Kyshoen Jarrett said.
“Tackling is a part of it. It’s kind of tough because it’s based on someone else’s judgment. But you just have to keep playing ball. You can’t have that on your mind during the game.”
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