LINCOLN — Nebraska assistant coach Terry Joseph was watching the NCAA “teach video” for the new targeting rule this summer when he suddenly froze in his DVR tracks.
One of the ejectable fouls on the screen was a play last season by one of his Husker cornerbacks. And a hit that, in Joseph's estimation, didn't fit the description of what college football officials would be watching for in 2013.
So if Joseph is a little fuzzy on the details, imagine what Rules 9-1-3 and 9-1-4 will be like for defensive players when the season starts and the costly infractions start happening.
“I think it's hard for anybody to have a clear grasp,” Joseph said.
With that in mind, it certainly has been a point of emphasis for Nebraska through the first week of fall practice. Joseph said the defensive staff has consistently discussed it in meetings, and addressed it when necessary on the practice field.
“The tough thing is that you don't want to take the aggressiveness out of your players,” he said. “So you kind of coach it on the fly, and when you get a teachable situation in practice or on film you kind of talk them through it. And they've got to know the ramifications of it. It's not just a 15-yarder — it's an ejection.”
NU head coach Bo Pelini already has been among those speaking out against the rule change — made for safety but sure to create controversy. In addition to a 15-yard personal-foul penalty, a player is ejected immediately for 9-1-3 (targeting/initiating contact with the crown of the helmet) or 9-1-4 (contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless player).
Much of the apprehension comes with a judgment call possibly deciding a player's fate for the rest of the game and sometimes the first half of the next, which takes Joseph back to the Josh Mitchell play last season against Michigan.
Joseph after practice Thursday demonstrated how the 165-pound Mitchell kind of waved with his shoulder at a Wolverines receiver on a third-and-long incomplete pass. Even though Mitchell nearly whiffed on the hit, he was slapped with a 15-yard penalty, and the disagreement from the Husker defense and sideline led to an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“So I thought it was weird when I watched the tape of ejectable fouls and that one was on it,” Joseph said.
Under the rule, a player is ejected for the rest of the game if it happens in the first half, or for the rest of the game and the first half of the next if it happens in the second half. The initial call will always be reviewed by replay, however, and the ejection (but not the penalty) can be overturned.
The call against Mitchell in the Michigan game came late in the third quarter. In that circumstance, he would have been sidelined for the rest of the game and then sat the first half the following week at Michigan State.
According to one report, the NCAA Football Rules Committee identified 99 targeting penalties that would have resulted in ejections in Football Bowl Subdivision games last season had the current rule been in place.
Mitchell said the Huskers have gone over it, but not to the point that the defensive backs will ever play tentatively because of it.
“They just told us, 'Just be aware of what you've got to do,' but they're not going to tell us not to play ball,” Mitchell said. “If you play fundamental football, you won't hit above the shoulder pads anyway, so that's what the coaches have been preaching to us.”
Some other questions with the change:
Ľ Joseph said watch for offensive players ducking right at contact — trying to draw the penalty and potential ejection — and the possibility that it might even be encouraged.
Ľ If defensive players start making an effort to go lower, Joseph asked, could it result in some shots below the waist that might lead to knee injuries?
Ľ And as with any new rule, will it be called liberally in the first few weeks to send a message?
Joseph said the concern is legitimate that some defenders will choose to aim low now that they're scared to go high.
“Now, what do you coach?” Joseph said. “You want your guy to stay in the game, so some coaches are going to have to live with their players being labeled dirty, because they're trying to stay legal, if that makes sense.”
NU safety Corey Cooper said defenders need to be cognizant of sometimes having to change their angle point. Cooper said he's always going to play by the rules, but he's not 100 percent sure he'll understand this one until he sees it called a few times.
Other elements taken into consideration are whether a defender launches himself (leaves his feet) or leads with a forearm, fist or elbow to an opponent's head or neck area.
“I'm aware of it, but I don't really know the exact details or what can cause a penalty,” Cooper said. “The coaches are just going to keep coaching us up on it throughout camp.
“We just don't need any DBs or anybody losing any games to suspension. So it's something we're stressing during camp.”
NU cornerback Daniel Davie said Joseph and defensive coordinator John Papuchis don't teach aiming for the head, so that won't be an adjustment. But some decisions and adjustments on hits have to be made within fractions of a second, so he could see it happening inadvertently.
The biggest key, he said, is just remembering the focus on protecting “defenseless receivers.”
“It's hard, because you always want to go for the biggest hit, for the momentum and your team and to get everybody excited,” Davie said. “At the same time, in the back of your head, you should have the suspension and all of that stuff.”
That thought should be there from all the reminding they've already heard.
“I've approached it. Bo's talked to them about it. JP's talked to them about it,” Joseph said. “Unfortunately, throughout college football there's probably going to be some good players ejected on some gray-area hits. We'll have to see how it goes through the season.”