New 'targeting' rule in college football a concern among players, coaches
CHICAGO — It's not the linebacker in Glenn Carson that leaves Penn State's fifth-year senior less than enthused about college football's emphasis on player safety.
It is the way the sport plans to discourage helmet-to-helmet hits that has him concerned.
The Nittany Lions' starting middle linebacker, after all, could get ejected from a game if an offensive player ducks into a protective crouch while Carson is making a tackle and their helmets collide.
“That's why I don't like it,” Carson said Wednesday at Big Ten media days.
Like it or not, the new rule that is aimed at players who launch themselves while making a tackle goes into effect in a little more than a month. It has become a hot-button issue with football season approaching, and Big Ten coaches were asked about it Wednesday when teams gathered at the Chicago Hilton for the annual conference media extravaganza.
Players who are flagged for violating the targeting rule are ejected, though that can be overturned after an official review in the replay booth. What has coaches and players most concerned is the subjective element that places even more of an onus on referees.
“Anybody can recognize (helmet hits) needed to be dealt with,” Iowa coach and Upper St. Clair graduate Kirk Ferentz said, “but I think on the plays that are bang, bang, which many of those are, I'm just hoping the officials will use good judgment.”
So is Carson.
“There's blatant (helmet hits), and there's other ones that are gray, and it would really be horrible to see a ref make a controversial call and have to eject a player when (the player) thought he was making a fair hit,” said Carson, Penn State's leading returning tackler. “I'm all about player safety and it's horrible when someone gets hurt, but I love hard-nosed football, and I love big hits.”
The debate over how to make football safer without changing the essence of the sport has raged since at least 2010. That is when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell cracked down on helmet-to-helmet hits and made anti-launching rules the foundation of his player-safety initiatives.
Goodell has drawn the ire of NFL players, most notably former Steelers linebacker James Harrison, for how he has attempted to rid the game of launching. But what college football has termed as targeting will be even more penal — at least to teams — because a player can be ejected.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said making sure his players understand the rule will be a point of emphasis when the Nittany Lions start preseason practice Aug. 5.
It has to be because Penn State is playing with scholarship restrictions and can't afford an ejection any more than it can an injury to a key player.
O'Brien said his former boss, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, did a good job during film study of correcting players who were penalized for a helmet-to-helmet hit. O'Brien won't wait that long to impress upon his players the importance of tackling within the framework of the rules.
He said he will have the referees who officiate scrimmages during training camp also talk to Penn State's players about what is legal and what is considered targeting.
Still, O'Brien said, “It comes down to a judgment call.”
That is why there is so much uneasiness among coaches.
“In my opinion, it's going a little bit overboard right now,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I understand where it's coming from. It's about the safety of the players, and we're all for that. We just have to make sure that we're not messing with the integrity of the game or the sport and how it's supposed to be played.”
Carson said the rule won't change his approach or curb his aggressive style.
“I'm going to put my nose on his chest,” he said. “I'm not going to aim for a head and just play.”
Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ ScottBrown_Trib.