Josh Kendall

DJ Smith penalty brings light to emphasis on targeting, the ire it raises

You don’t like the targeting rule. I know. I also don’t care.

I’ll tell you why I don’t care, but first the background on why we’re talking targeting this week: South Carolina safety D.J. Smith was flagged for it in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 24-21 win over Tennessee. The result was the Volunteers gaining 15 penalty yards on what would be a touchdown drive and Smith being ejected from the game. Smith also will miss the first half of the Missouri game since his ejection came in the second half against the Volunteers.

It’s a tough break for Smith and the Gamecocks, but I’m not going to spend one second feeling bad for either of them. Here’s why:

“We always coach them to lower their target. His target was low,” South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said. “The other thing is not butting the receiver down with our forearms because usually when you do that, that causes the crown of your helmet to lower. Instead of the throwing your forearms, you have to wrap him up. If you wrap, your face will stay up and therefore the contact will be with your facemask as opposed to any part of top of your helmet. What I will coach D.J. on is to wrap the receiver and lower your target.”

So the result on the flag on Smith is that his head coach will re-emphasize the importance of proper tackling technique with Smith and his entire team. In short, the rule is working. Muschamp and every other responsible football coach in the country have long been preaching proper tackling form, but it never hurts to have a reminder, and targeting penalties are a powerful reminder.

Through the first seven weeks of this season there were 11 targeting calls on SEC players, the same number as in the first seven weeks of the 2015 season. Considering that the definition of a defenseless player has been expanded and that booth officials now can call targeting (which has happened twice this season in the league), that tells SEC coordinator of football officials Steve Shaw that the message is getting through.

“It’s going the direction we want,” Shaw said. “The number staying flat year after year I think really indicates that player behavior is getting better.”

Smith did nothing wrong Saturday night. He had no intention to hurt Tennessee wide receiver Jauan Jennings. He was simply trying to make the play that it is his job to make and ended up with his helmet on the same course as Jennings’ as both ducked at the same time.

“I’ve played the position,” said Muschamp, a safety at Georgia. “It’s hard.”

It was still the right call. It’s worth noting, in fact it’s the entire point, that Smith was woozy after the play. The goal, lest we forget in the misguided rush to talk about how they’re turning the sport into flag football, is to protect people’s brains. In 2015, the PBS show “Frontline” reported that a study conducted by Boston University and the Department of Veterans Affairs found CTE (a brain injury that is likely caused by repeated head traumas) in 96 percent of NFL players and 79 percent of players at all levels among its study group.

If a super sensitivity on the targeting issue saves D.J. Smith or Jauan Jennings, or anybody else in the SEC or the sport at large, one brain injury, they can throw as many flags as they want every Saturday as far as I am concerned.

“They have told the officials to err on safety, and I’m all for that,” Muschamp said. “In that situation in that contact with a defenseless player, that flag is getting thrown. I don’t care what you do. That’s just the way our game is headed right now, and it doesn’t really matter what I think. It is what it is. You just coach the guy up, and that’s what you’ve got to do.”

How is that a bad outcome? Shaw just started a four-year term as the secretary-rules editor of the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel, and he carries his belief in and support for the current targeting rule into that role.

“We have a great game. It builds strong leaders,” Shaw said, “and I think our game needs to be protected, but we also have to adapt to our new world. In this new world, everything we do has to have player safety as the focus.”

Football is still plenty tough. Talk to any football player on a Sunday morning if you don’t believe me. The flag on Smith sustained a Volunteers touchdown drive that cut South Carolina’s lead to 24-21. It could have contributed to the Gamecocks losing the game.

That would have stunk, but I’d still like the rule.