Published Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 8:32 pm / Updated at 1:32 am
Shatel: Targeting rule could cause a real headache

CHICAGO — Here at the Church of Halas, Ditka and the Holy Butkus, we bow our heads and ask forgiveness.

For having to ask Big Ten football players if they are concerned about how they'll tackle this season.

Welcome to college football in 2013, when players will be ejected if found guilty of “targeting” another player with the crown of the helmet.

The judge and jury on what is acceptable football will be a man wearing stripes.

Mr. Dick Butkus, you were born at the right time.

“I understand where they're coming from, with safety,” Nebraska cornerback Ciante Evans said. “But it makes it more of a seven-on-seven game.”

“It's embarrassing,” Michigan State middle linebacker Max Bullough said. “I'm like the old-school football guy. Let us play. We played football our whole life. We know the risks, we know the rewards. You sign up for a construction job, you might get hit in the head.”

“It wouldn't surprise me if football as we know it is over in 10 years,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “Done.”

The wimpification of football — as we know it — can be debated. The concern now is what players and coaches are going to do with this rule. And how to avoid losing a key player, on either side of the ball, in games where one play can swing the result.

Based on what an official thinks he saw.

Some are calling this the Jadeveon Clowney Rule. Not because the poster-job hit that the South Carolina defender made on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in last year's Outback Bowl was the reason for the rule. It wasn't.

But Clowney's ultimate “SportsCenter” highlight is a perfect example of what we're in for this season.

In a word, subjectivity.

At the various conference media days this week, league coordinators of officials were asked if the Clowney hit would be a flag this year. It wasn't a penalty at the time.

The coordinators for the ACC and Big 12 said it would be cause for ejection this season.

Bill Carollo, the Big Ten's supervisor of officials, said Thursday he thought it was a legal play.

If these officials with sharp eyes and knowledge of the rules can't agree on this, what are the rest of the officials going to do?

“What is a classic targeting play?” Carollo said. “There are elements we look at. Number one, is the player defenseless? The other is, you cannot use the crown of your helmet, like taking aim, lowering your head. It didn't fall in that category.

“Was (Smith) defenseless? It looks bad. The helmet comes off. But I thought it was handled properly.”

So at least Carollo and Pelini can agree on that.

“If they're going to throw somebody out of the game for the Clowney hit, then we better find another sport,” Pelini said. “I don't know what you can tell a kid.

“I'm just going to coach football and try and educate our kids to not purposely target guys with their head. Other than that, I don't know much more I can do.”

Maybe give Kenny Bell a megaphone to announce his presence.

The Nebraska receiver was penalized after a devastating block on a Wisconsin defender in last year's Big Ten championship game. The defender was chasing NU's Jamal Turner and didn't see Bell, who threw a shoulder into him and sent him sprawling.

Carollo said such a play would get Bell ejected this season.

Why? Carollo said Bell came in high on the Wisconsin player. And the player wasn't given time to defend himself.

It looked like a clean hit, a football hit. During a meeting last winter with Big Ten football coaches, Carollo used the Bell play as an example of what would not be permissible. Pelini still respectfully disagrees.

“He caught the kid,” Pelini said. “That's football. What do we have to do, announce ourselves before we get there?”

It's about the head. It's about concussions. They're trying to discourage players from aiming high, and aiming with the crown of their helmet. Even the old-schoolers agree safety is important.

But as NU's Evans says, “I don't think you should get ejected for an unintentional hit. Sometimes you hit someone in the head unintentionally.”

Good luck trying to figure that out. That's the major flaw to this rule.

“Targeting is one of your most difficult calls,” Carollo said. “Some of them are no-brainers. You see it, you hold your head and say, 'Oh my God.'

“Other times, it happens really fast. These kids are great athletes. Did he get him in the shoulder? In the numbers? Did he slide up and get him in the neck area?

“Did he launch? Did he leave his feet, Did he use the crown of his helmet? Did he target him? That's a lot of questions in a split second.”

The conferences have agreed to use replay to help decide whether an ejection is warranted. That's certainly fair. And smart. It will add another delay to the games, but getting an ejection correct is worth that.

“It's coming from a good place, trying to protect defenseless players,” said James Morris, Iowa's middle linebacker. “I just hope they use discretion with it, because the implications of being ejected, that's serious. I hope that they're smart about it.”

That goes for the players, too. But kids make mistakes. So do officials. Football is a game of mistakes made at high speeds. It's a game of collisions. A “nasty game for nasty boys,” in the immortal words of former NU assistant Mike Corgan.

This rule won't declaw the tiger. This may save some noggins. But will it ruin some knees?

A couple of former college players I ran into at the Big Ten event wondered that aloud. To wit: If you can't hit high, maybe some will start going low.

And they asked the magic question: Would you rather have a concussion or have your knees blown out?

You would be surprised at the number of players who would take the concussion, every time.

Certainly, there's something to be said for technique. Pelini talked about the need for uniform teaching methods, starting at the youth level, across the country. But if you're thinking lead with the shoulder, Pelini would disagree.

“If you tackle with your shoulder, where does the blow end up hitting you? On the side of the head,” Pelini said.

“In my opinion, when you see what you're hitting, and you hit with your head, your eyes are on the right thing, typically you don't get hurt. It's when the blow is on the side of the head where I see guys come off with concussions.”

Just put that hat on the other's guy numbers, or in his gut. Or, as Evans suggested, maybe on the ball.

You can still get on “SportsCenter.”

“I would argue that in the '60s, '70s and '80s, the hits you see today were very rare then,” said Morris, from Solon, Iowa. “To say that these hits are what make football football is a little bit of a discredit.

“If you can hit a guy high, you probably could have hit him somewhere else.”

Play on, gentlemen. Be careful out there. Nobody wants to watch flag football.

* * *

>> Video: Big Ten media days highlights:

Contact the writer: Tom Shatel    |   402-444-1025    |  

Tom Shatel is a sports columnist who covers the city, regional and state scene.



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