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NCAA's new targeting rule sparks college football debate

Notre Dame’s Zeke Motta, right, hits Navy’s Trey Miller with a tackling technique that could lead to an ejection this season.
Published Jul. 3, 2013

Ask college football coaches about safety concerns and most would say making the game safer for players is a top priority, even if it means drastically changing some long-standing rules.

"I think player safety is really important to our game right now," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "And I think any rules that we can implement in our game that's going to protect players are good rules."

In theory.

The practical applications? Well, sometimes, that's another story.

Which is why the NCAA's new targeting rule and the potential penalty it carries has gotten so much attention of late, and was among the hottest topics at the recent SEC spring meetings.

The rule, passed by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel in the spring, allows officials to eject players who target and hit defenseless players above the shoulders. It will be implemented this season.

The goal is to eliminate head-to-head hits that could seriously endanger players. The rule calls for immediate ejection if the lead field official determines a player "targeted" a defenseless player above the shoulders. The official's call is final unless the replay official overrules it.

That gray area — and how it could impact a game and possibly a team's championship hopes — has some coaches worried about the rule's impact.

"It's a little severe right now," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "Any hit to the head and the guy could be ejected and miss the next half, or if he does it in the first half, he'll miss the second half. If it's intentional or somebody really trying to hurt somebody, I can see that. But sometimes, with two guys going for the ball, you're going to have some helmet-to-helmet stuff."

First-year Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has been a member of the NCAA Player Safety Committee the past two seasons, and he said the group spent "a lot of time" discussing the best ways to make the game more player-safety driven without severely altering it. The helmet rule was a big part of those discussions.

"I know some people aren't happy, but I felt overall we had a huge, huge impact on the game in modifying the targeting (rule)," Bielema said. "We saw some examples from very, very potentially life-changing plays. You can change a young man's life in a split second, so we're trying to deter players from leading with their heads. To take that initiative and make it be immediate and have a player expelled from the game was a huge step, but I think that was the (right thing). Players don't understand anything except for the loss of playing time."

The SEC was already moving in that direction. Last season, SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended two players for above-the-shoulder hits on defenseless opponents.

Florida coach Will Muschamp said he doesn't have a problem with the ejection part of the rule because it's reviewable, but he would like to see the rule include blocking below the waist.

"You want to talk about player safety? Let's talk about ACLs and the injuries that occur with blocking below the waist if you want to continue to talk about player safety," Muschamp said.

Bielema said it's imperative that coaches review the way they teach players how to tackle, particularly if they are instructing players to lead with their heads. He said the rule isn't meant to be punitive. It's meant to protect.

"I don't know if there's going to be a lot of ejections, but what's going to happen is you're going to change player behavior, which is the ultimate goal," Bielema said. "I don't think anybody made the rule with the objective, let's kick people out of the game. What we're trying to do is change the behavior and the way people play the game and target with their head. That's the ultimate goal."

Antonya English can be reached at english@tampabay.com.

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