"When in doubt, throw him out."
That was the comment last month from Big Ten officials coordinator Bill Carrollo regarding the new emphasis on blows targeted above the head and shoulders.
"We have to change behavior," he said. "Otherwise, we won't have a game."
It's only a couple days before the season starts, so let's review where we're at with the new rules. There are two areas in which automatic disqualification can occur because of targeting. Both fall under the Personal Fouls section of the 2013 and 2014 Rules And Interpretations NCAA Football Handbook.
Those two areas are:
Targeting and Initiating Contact With the Crown of the Helmet
Targeting and Initiating Contact to Head or Neck Area of a Defenseless Player
Note the definition of targeting as found in the rule book:
"Targeting" means that a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with an apparent intent that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball. Some indicators of targeting include but are not limited to:
• Launch-a player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make contact in the head or neck area
• A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground
• Leading with helmet, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with contact at the head or neck area
• Lowering the head before attacking by initiating contact with the crown of the helmet
You should also familiarize yourself with what constitutes a "defenseless player":
• A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.
• A receiver attempting to catch a pass, or one who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.
• A kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball, or during the kick or the return.
• A kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick.
• A player on the ground.
• A player obviously out of the play.
• A player who receives a blind-side block.
• A ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped.
• A quarterback any time after a change of possession.
The changes have already resulted in confusion from defensive coaches and players. Bo Pelini's comments at Big Ten Media Days pointed to the uncertainty of how the new penalties will be called:
"It's going to be pretty subjective, and it's not an easy thing to call. In my opinion, I think it's going a little bit overboard right now," Pelini said. "Some of the things I've seen on TV and different examples that they've shown, even as a coach watching it on TV, I haven't quite agreed with some of the things they've talked about."
This week Ohio State coach Urban Meyer commented on ejection component as a "game-changer."
"That's a game-changer," Meyer said of the ejection addendum. "We've been told you want to go into players low. We're still learning it as well as the whole college football world. It's not like this is just the next new rule. It's a big one."
In case you're wondering, confusion and doubt are confined to the Big Ten Conference. They echo throughout college football.
At Virginia Tech:
"Oh my god, it's not a big difference at all," Tech secondary coach Torrian Gray said. "Some hits that we saw with our eyes - ‘Oh, that was low' - they said that would have been an illegal hit. It definitely makes it tough. That's why I say we as coaches have to emphasize it with players."
In the SEC, with Florida defensive lineman Dominique Easley stating:
"They're basically making us play flag football," Easley said. "It's hard. You can't really control where you want to hit. But it's part of the game. Rules come, you have to follow them."
From Big 12 Media Days:
Ahmad Dixon, Baylor defensive back: "I'm not going to say I'm worried about it, but it's something I think about. I'm a hard hitter. That's what I do. That's what I've been known for is my ability to hit. Now that I have to watch where I hit somebody, the way I hit somebody, it'll be a little bit different. It's something to think about. Not nothing to worry about, but something to think about."
Coaches and players aren't going to wait until someone gets thrown out of a game to make changes in how they play defense. Coaches have already changed how they are teaching their players to play defense this season, and as related, they will have to think differently about how they approach tackling. The idea that defensive players can intimidate offensive players by "blowing them up" is gone.
Hard hitters like Williams and Brooks are most vulnerable under the new rules. No longer can they attempt to blow up unknowing offensive players streaking across the middle. Nor can they take care of a receiver over the top while the cornerback attempts to break up or intercept a deep pass.
If the related comments and examples aren't enough to convince you of the chilling effect on defenses, consider the sequence of how a potential ejection foul will be called.
A flag is thrown, targeting is called, and the player is ejected. A replay official will review the play to determine if the ejection is warranted. If the ejection is warranted, play will continue and 15-yards and a first down will be granted to the offense. If the ejection is not warranted, the player will stay in the game but the 15-yard penalty will still be enforced and a first down awarded.
This will drive defensive coordinators and players completely insane.
It will result in defenses playing differently whether they intend to or not. Uncertainty leads to tentative decision making. Tentative decision making leads directly to more missed tackles, more explosive plays by the offense.
Every year a new rule is implemented there's an adjustment period by the officials, coaches, and players as to how those rules change game play but before the season starts it's easy to say it will be a minor miracle if the new rules don't result in defense being negated across the board in college football.