RonMorris

Morris: Targeting penalties appear to be working

rmorris@ thestate.comSeptember 11, 2013 

South Carolina Gamecocks safety D.J. Swearinger (36) breaks up a pass in the third quarter of the Gamecocks game against UAB at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, SC. Swearinger was called for a flag on the play.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

Players and coaches expressed concern in the preseason that newly instituted penalties for “targeting” in college football would remove the killer instinct from the game. Instead, it appears the severe penalties are eliminating the game’s killer assassins.

A significant drop in targeting fouls from the season’s first week to the second shows that players are getting it: Brutal hits on defenseless players and using the crown of the helmet to viciously tackle will no longer be tolerated.

Rogers Redding likes what he is seeing. He is the NCAA football secretary-rules editor and national coordinator of football officials.

“We always want rule changes like this around player safety to impact players,” Redding said in a prepared statement. “Watching some of the game and video, I can see situations where you can clearly see a player changed his behavior.

“The smaller number of targeting fouls from week two compared to week one is certainly an encouraging result.”

And how.

There were 10 targeting penalties called in the 75 games involving FBS teams over the season’s opening week, according to the NCAA. In three of those instances, instant replays helped overturn the ejection portion of the penalty.

In 75 games involving FBS teams during the second week, there were four targeting fouls. In each case, the player was disqualified for targeting and initiating contact to the head-neck area of a defenseless opponent, according to the NCAA.

That means there have been 14 targeting penalties in the 150 games involving FBS teams, or one every 10.7 games. That compares to a targeting penalty being called once every eight games during the 2012 season, the NCAA said.

LSU coach Les Miles said Wednesday that fears by coaches and players that too much leeway in levying the penalties would fall on the officials has been erased in the season’s first two weeks.

“I think it’s a great rule,” Miles said. “I think it’s been implemented up to this point in a straight-forward fashion. I want to compliment the officials because it appears to me that, most of the time, they’re moderate in their approach and that’s what it should be.”

Miles also said he believes the target point in tackling had gradually moved up the body, starting long ago around the legs and eventually inching to the shoulders and head.

With the recent advent of concussion consciousness at every level of football, college officials decided in the offseason to do something about that trend. Five years ago, the college game instituted a 15-yard penalty for what is commonly referred to as “targeting.”

But that did not have the desired effect of eliminating helmet-to-helmet hits and above-the-shoulders contact with defenseless players. To move toward eliminating that practice, the NCAA opted to stiffen the penalty.

Beginning this season, an automatic ejection was added to the 15-yard penalty in cases of targeting. If a player is ejected in the first half, he must remain on the sideline for the remainder of that game. If the ejection occurs in the second half, the player is required to miss the remainder of that game and the first half of his team’s next game.

To make certain such a severe penalty does not rely solely on the discretion of the official, an ejection (not the penalty) can be reviewed at the time of the foul. As mentioned, in the first week of the season, three ejections were overturned after consulting replays.

“Playing time is a motivator to our players, and we think this will have a pretty significant impact,” said Steve Shaw, the SEC supervisor of officials, during SEC media days. “The rules committee really believes this will make an impact.”

At least one coach, Florida’s Will Muschamp, believed the change in the penalty for targeting had an immediate impact, even before games were played.

“Certainly, it has changed how we’re coaching,” Muschamp said. “You’ve got to target lower. There’s no question that we have put a huge emphasis on it with our players in training camp and in multiple situations, such as teaching tape from practice. There’s no question we have certainly emphasized it a lot with our guys.”

That kind of emphasis has helped changed the mindset of players, according to Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.

“I think anytime there’s a penalty for something you do wrong, and it’s a major penalty, what kids like most of anything is playing time,” Fisher said. “So, I think that has had an effect, and I don’t think there’s any doubt it’s in their minds.”

A year ago, the discussion about new penalties in college football focused on the frequent loss of helmets during play. Initially, players balked at the idea of having to sit out one play because their helmets became dislodged. It seemed unfair, until everyone realized that proper fastening of the helmet would prevent it from dislodging.

Helmets flew off heads frequently the first couple of weeks of the 2012 season. Then players adapted, secured their helmets properly, and the rule has become pretty much inconsequential since.

We can only hope the same happens with targeting. As more and more players realize the severity of a penalty for a senseless act, there likely will be fewer instances. Eventually, targeting will be eliminated from the game.