New rule on 'targeting' has a fine line of interpretation
DALLAS - Walt Anderson, the Big 12's supervisor of officials, said Tuesday morning that big hits are a part of football and should be celebrated. Then he spent a half hour explaining why some of those hits will now be cause for ejection.
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has listened intently to Anderson and others who have tried to explain college football's new targeting rules and he's still not sure what to make of them. Get back to him in a few weeks, he said.
Karl Joseph? Well, he was asked about targeting probably 50 times Tuesday during the Big 12's annual media day event here. By the end of the day he was probably wondering if he had cause for concern, even though the thought had never really crossed his mind.
And with good reason. No one has even brought it up to him.
"It's really unfair to Karl to be asked these questions,'' Holgorsen said. "He doesn't know what you're talking about.''
Well, here's what we're talking about. In reaction to concerns over concussions and the generally violent nature of the sport, college football's rule makers are cracking down on intentionally vicious and dangerous hits.
There's a fine line there, the Big 12's supervisor of officials said during the league's football media days. What constitutes crossing it, however, is likely to be a point of contention throughout the coming college football season. Beginning this season, officials can eject a player for targeting, which most commonly might mean using the helmet as a weapon but can also include things such as launching into an opponent or an unnecessarily high hit.
Last year the act carried just a 15-yard penalty, which still stands. As for the ejection part, there is a safety valve. The ejection part of the call is reviewable by the replay official. He can't overturn the penalty but he can overturn the ejection.
How does this relate to Joseph? Well, West Virginia's starting free safety was generally the hardest hitter on an otherwise passive defense for the Mountaineers last season. The prevailing theory among WVU fans seems to be that if anyone is likely to incur scrutiny for hits it would be the sophomore.
Holgorsen disagrees, characterizing Joseph's hits as aggressive, not dirty (he actually first said "vicious,'' then said "that's not the right word''). Still, with such uncertainty over how such things are going to be interpreted by officials this season, he's taking no chances.
"When I get back [to Morgantown] one of the first things we'll do is have our video people put together a tape of Karl's 10 most aggressive hits ... and I'll send them to Walt Anderson and tell him to judge them,'' Holgorsen said. "We'll get clarification back and then in a week and a half, two weeks when we sit down and meet with our team we will explain the rule. We haven't done that yet so it's not fair to him to be asked these questions and be put on the spot without knowing what's going on.''
So what will Joseph and everyone else be taught this year about targeting? Well, good question. And a hard one. Even Anderson has trouble explaining it.
"You're going to have big hits in football and there's nothing wrong with that. We need to be celebrating big hits,'' Anderson said. "But what we don't want to celebrate, and we've got to get out of, is this culture of the targeting actions where really we're celebrating an illegal act and a potentially very dangerous act.''
Anderson said officials will call targeting most often in four cases: hits on receivers, roughing the passer, hits on ball carriers and blind-side blocks. Aspects of a potential targeting call will include launching off the ground at a player, thrusting toward him, striking with the head or arms and using the crown of the helmet.
In other words, it's more complicated than simply helmet-to-helmet contact.
"There's a lot of helmet-to-helmet contact in a football game. As a matter of fact, in most of the helmet-to-helmet contact in a football game, the vast majority of that is perfectly legal. It's not a foul, shouldn't be called,'' Anderson said. "It's the intentional helmet-to-helmet contacts or other body parts to the helmet that we're working to try to eliminate.''
Just as there are signs officials will look for in calling the penalty, there are others they will consider in deciding not to do so. Those will be especially important for the replay official to consider.
Primarily, a player is being asked to keep his head up, wrap up the ball carrier and keep the head to the side. Officials will also be considering quick changes of position by the offended player (such as ducking or dodging to avoid a hit) that can result in an unintended action by the player accused of targeting.
"We want you to put your head to the side, turn your shoulder into the player and lower your strike zone. And even if you do those things, there are going to be times when, just through the normal course of play, there may be some incidental contact,'' Anderson said. "We want to be sure we're differentiating that type of action from the intentional act of targeting a player high.''
Those are the things Joseph, the rest of the Mountaineers and everyone in college football are going to have to learn. It could be messy. It could delay games. But with the game itself under attack because of concussions, it's something the rules makers deemed necessary.
"Because the game is under attack, we will either work at changing this culture from within or it will be worked at being changed from without,'' Anderson said. "And I don't think anybody within the game will argue that we would much rather change it from within than have it changed for us from without by other people.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.