Contact between college football players will be scrutinized by officiating crews like never before this season, with a hefty penalty in store for the offending player.
That realization is slowly starting to materialize in the minds of defensive players across the country. Penn State defenders Malcolm Willis and Glenn Carson aren’t fans of the NCAA’s latest mandate directed toward shoring up player safety at the expense of physicality inherent to the game.
While contact rules haven’t changed, the NCAA’s definition of a defenseless player has been expanded and the penalty has changed.
Starting this fall, a player flagged for targeting a defenseless opponent with a particularly violent hit, defined by rules 9-1-3 and 9-1-4, will be ejected from the game in addition to a 15-yard penalty. If the hit takes place in the second half or overtime, the offending player will have to sit out the first half of his team’s next game.
“Being a linebacker, obviously I don’t like people putting a penalty on the way you hit somebody,” Carson, a middle linebacker, said. “I really don’t like it, but I understand where they’re coming from. They’re trying to protect the players.”
Willis lines up at a position that he said he feels is getting harder and harder to play by the year. The senior safety had a feeling this was coming, however.
“It’s sort of becoming just like the National Football League to where I feel like it limits a defender,” Willis said. “You have to think a little more before delivering the blow. And I feel like the game has always been an offensive game but no matter what, you have to deal with the rules that are in place.”
Willis quickly admitted there isn’t much time to think before an impact, and there lies the problem, he said.
The NFL has added numerous safety-minded guidelines to its rulebook over the last few seasons. Rules geared toward protecting quarterbacks and defenseless receivers have been introduced and have been met with disdain by traditionalists. New for 2013, an NFL player cannot lower his helmet and strike a player with it outside the tackle box.
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien has been there. He saw players get fined in excess for helmet-to-helmet hits as NFL officials cracked down on the field. When that happened, he said his former boss, Patriots coach Bill Belichick, would hold a team meeting and show the replay of the hit — be it a Patriots player or not — and explain to the team why it was illegal.
O’Brien said he plans to do the same when training camp opens.
“At the end of the day, I would say that it comes down to a judgment call on the field by the officials,” O’Brien said. “So what we do there is, we have really good officials that come in during training camp and officiate some of our scrimmages and they speak to our team at night and we’ll ask them questions about exactly what they’re going to be looking for.”
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald noted the recent changes in the NHL — players can no longer deliver blindside hits and targeted hits to the head are now subject to suspensions and fines — and said the new rule will be good for the game.
“I like the fact that that’s a play that’s coming into our game to make sure we have the number one most important thing handled and that’s the health and safety and well being of our student athletes,” Fitzgerald said.
Illinois’ Tim Beckman got an early preview of the new targeting penalty last season.
Then, in the Big Ten opener, Fighting Illini safety Earnest Graham was ejected for a helmet-to-helmet blow leveled against Penn State tight end Matt Lehman. Graham lowered his head and drove through Lehman’s helmet with his own as Lehman crossed the goal line on a 21-yard touchdown reception.
“We feel with the concussion issues, we feel as coaches that that needs to be addressed,” Beckman said. “It’s constantly talked about through spring football and through winter workouts.”
Nebraska’s Bo Pelini, known as a defensive-minded coach, was the first to voice a bit of opposition to the added penalty of ejection.
Despite his reservations, Pelini said he and his staff closely monitored contact between his players in spring practice and let his players know when a hit could possibly be flagged and result in an ejection. He’s still not sure how consistent officiating crews will be when interpreting the new penalty, however.
Like Willis, Carson and O’Brien, Pelini is worried about consistency with the new penalty.
“The scary thing to me is the application part of it,” Pelini said. “It’s going to be pretty subjective and I don’t think it’s an easy thing to call. In my opinion, it’s going a little bit overboard. ... 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 we’re not messing with the integrity of the game and the sport and how it’s supposed to be played.”