Grady Brown doesn’t understand the implementation of college football’s new targeting rule any better than anyone else, but he does have a strategy for handling it.
South Carolina’s secondary coach essentially is going to ignore it.
“We have enough issues. I definitely don’t want guys out there thinking,” Brown said. “I still want them to play fast and just react, so I have to get as many players ready as possible and deal with those situations when they come up. You just don’t want guys thinking. We have a hard enough job playing consistent technique without having guys thinking about how they make a tackle.”
The targeting rule has been the most controversial addition to the college football rulebook in more than a decade. It’s strictly worded language and seemingly arbitrary application have united many college football coaches, players, media members and fans in opposition.
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“I will say we have had a lot of media interest on it so it has created an opportunity to talk about it a little more,” said Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of officials.
The rule states that players who “target and contact defenseless opponents above the shoulders will be ejected.” Seems fairly unobjectionable in theory, but not in practice.
“As we all know, our game is under attack and the more we learn about concussions and head injuries, I think the rules committee felt like it was time to make a statement,” Shaw said. “Football is never going to be perfectly safe, but anything we can do that impacts player safety in a positive way is worth the effort.”
The rule affected the Gamecocks for the first time last week against UCF when senior safety Brison Williams was called for targeting midway through the second quarter for a hit on Knights wide receiver Jeff Godfrey. Williams was automatically ejected but reinstated after a five-minute review of the play that revealed he led the tackle with his shoulder rather than his head and that his helmet never made contact with Godfrey’s helmet.
“I knew it would be a flag,” Brown said. “Pretty much any hard hit on a receiver in the act of catching a ball is going to be a flag. There is a lot of frustration, but what can I do? All I can do is coach my guys and get them ready to play.”
While Williams was reinstated to the game, the 15-yard penalty is not allowed to be overturned. Shaw acknowledged — after watching it on slow-motion replay — that the play was not a foul. The penalty erased a big play for the Gamecocks and gave UCF a first-and-10 at South Carolina’s 28-yard line instead of a second-and-10 at South Carolina’s 43-yard line.
“It’s putting us in a lose-lose situation,” cornerback Victor Hampton said. “Do we let them catch the ball and then hit them? How are we supposed to play?”
Shaw has an answer for that, and it’s simply repeating a message he passed along to all 14 SEC teams in person during preseason practice this year. No. 1, always make tackles with your head up and eyes on target. No. 2, lower your target and don’t hit near the head. No. 3, and most important, display proper tackling form by wrapping both arms around the player.
“When you launch yourself and look like a missile, we see that and that’s a high indicator,” Shaw said. “That puts our officials on alert.”
Seven SEC players and 32 players throughout the Football Bowl Subdivision have been called for targeting this season. Eight of those players, three from the SEC, have been reinserted into the game after review.
The rule has some defenders, most notably LSU coach Les Miles, who never has been afraid to stress the physical nature of the game to his players.
“I think the targeting rule is very good for football,” Miles said, saying the safety concerns trump all other issues.
Steve Spurrier is among the supporters to a point.
“I think it’s a good rule,” Spurrier said. “Those guys who spear and lead with the crown of their helmet, they need to be thrown out of the game. There’s no question about that. It’s a good rule, and, hopefully, the referees will apply it correctly all the time because it’s a pretty severe penalty for the hit.”
The Gamecocks asked the SEC after the UCF game not about the Williams play but about a similar flag that was thrown against the Knights for blocking cornerback Ahmad Christian from the blindside on a long pass play. A flag was thrown but the officiating crew conferred and waved off the flag, saving the Knights from losing a defensive player to ejection and being penalized 15 yards.
South Carolina defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has defended the rule but acknowledged after the UCF game that he hopes it is reviewed and modified after the season. The rule calls for officials to make the targeting call if there is any doubt and then an automatic replay review of the ejection. If the replay shows targeting did not occur, the ejection is overturned, but the 15-yard portion of the penalty is not reviewable and cannot be overturned.
The reason for that, Shaw said, is that oftentimes a personal foul penalty is warranted even if the play is not targeting, and the NCAA rules committee did not want the replay official to have to “officiate the game from the booth.”
While no changes will be made during the season, Shaw said he expects an intense review and, perhaps, changes in the offseason. However, the rules detractors will be disappointed to hear this: The targeting rule is working. Last season, college football averaged one targeting call every eight games. Thus far, it has seen one targeting call every 10 games this year, Shaw said.
“I am seeing a number of plays where last year a player might have gone ahead and taken a shot at another player and now he pulls back or lowers his target,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”