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Nate Gerry, Huskers join trend to rugby-style tackling techniques to avoid targeting penalties

Nate Gerry, Huskers join trend to rugby-style tackling techniques to avoid targeting penalties

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LINCOLN — Nebraska safety Nate Gerry didn’t ever think he’d have to relearn how to tackle. But after his textbook hit got him ejected three months ago, he’s not going to put up much of a protest.

The Huskers are implementing new tackling techniques this spring, following suit with college football’s latest trend — which was apparently triggered by a 2014 Pete Carroll instructional video highlighting the benefits of rugby-style tactics.

Carroll’s general advice for tacklers: aim for the thighs and take the head out of it.

That’s enough to get Gerry to buy in. Just those two tips alone might have saved him from a flag in Nebraska’s 37-29 Foster Farms Bowl win in December, when Gerry wrapped up a UCLA ball carrier at the shoulders but accidentally knocked helmets on the way to the turf. The officials called targeting on Gerry, who’d also been ejected for the same foul in NU’s 28-20 loss to Iowa.

So Gerry and the rest of the Husker defenders are going to go back to the basics this spring. He hopes it’ll pay off.

“It’s a whole different ballgame,” Gerry said. “But for all the improvements I’ve seen so far, I think that it’s going to be very beneficial for us.”

Nebraska, it seemed, had to consider something different.

Targeting calls have increased since the disqualification punishment was added to the rule in 2013. According to NCAA data, the amount of targeting calls in FBS dropped from 87 to 55 from 2012 to 2013. But there were 72 flags in 2014 and 115 last year.

The NCAA does plan to adjust the replay official’s jurisdiction for next year, pending approval from its Playing Rules Oversight Panel. Replay previously could overturn targeting calls only if there was no visible head or shoulder contact. Now all aspects of the call can be reviewed. And furthermore, if a blatant targeting foul is missed by the on-field officiating crew, the replay official can call it himself.

“This rule is so important from the standpoint of player safety and disqualification of the person committing the foul that we felt like this was a legitimate reason to expand that responsibility,” NCAA national officiating coordinator Rogers Redding said in a February teleconference.

But the targeting rule — which prohibits tacklers from leading with the crown of their helmet or making head or shoulder contact with defenseless players — continues to present a puzzling conundrum for guys committed to a quick and physical style. Nebraska players interviewed say they haven’t adjusted their play. They don’t think much at all about targeting while on the field, fearing any hesitancy could lead to poor technique or even injury.

“It all happens so fast,” senior linebacker Josh Banderas said.

The intent of targeting makes sense, Gerry said. He wants fewer injuries, too. But he doesn’t think the extreme set of consequences — a 15-yard penalty and an ejection — match the practicality of the rule’s application.

He’s been flagged for targeting twice. And in Gerry’s mind, he’s done nothing malicious.

“I think the whole ejection part might be too much,” Gerry said. “I understand I may have hit his head — OK, give me a flag. But you don’t kick somebody out for that.”

Coach Mike Riley noted last week that Gerry’s hit against UCLA was used as a reference point to debate the rule while at a recent league meeting.

“We have to help define for players what is legal and not legal because 10 years ago, you would cut that up on a video and say that this is good form tackling right here,” Riley said.

So at Nebraska, Riley and his staff are trying to redefine it.

Last month, the NU coaches were briefed on the Carroll tackling philosophies by an “outside source,” Riley said. The Husker players watched film of the rugby-style techniques last week. They began on-field drill work Saturday.

Head placement appears to be the biggest difference. Previously, tacklers were instructed to wrap up while driving their head across the chest or stomach of the ball carrier. Now, the Huskers are trying to position their outside shoulders with a ball carrier’s inside hip, keeping the head out of harm’s way as they try to put their arms around his thighs.

“Instead of putting your head across (the ball carrier’s body), you keep it inside,” Gerry said. “You don’t have to reach your neck across the body.”

The rugby-style strategy has earned significant national praise — most notably from Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose team embraced the changes two years ago. More and more college teams seem to be experimenting with the concepts since Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks coach, released a 20-minute video explaining his techniques in 2014.

Gerry and the Huskers are hoping for positive results. He’s still a little bummed about getting kicked out of two games — but he’ll begin his senior season with renewed enthusiasm and confidence, assuming he can continue playing with the same aggressiveness he’s always shown.

“It’s a little different style, but the mentality won’t change,” he said.

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