Vanderbilt cornerback Andre Hal was the star of a video clip played on the big screen at the front of the main media ballroom last week at SEC Media Days.
He could have done without the attention.
A decade ago, fans and coaches might have cheered Hal’s vicious hit on South Carolina receiver Justice Cunningham. In 2013, it will earn him an immediate ejection.
Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of football officials, said an increased emphasis on “targeting” — hits in which a defender launches himself toward a defenseless player and hits him above the shoulders — could have the most dramatic impact on the game in decades.
And yet as the 2013 season approaches, few players, coaches or fans are discussing it.
A few early ejections could change that quickly.
Hal, who heard about his dubious recognition in the video presentation, was contrite. He didn’t intend to hurt anyone, nor did he intend to make contact near the head. In a violent game that requires a mix of speed and recklessness, even well-intentioned players can have a hard time following the rules.
The only solution Hal can think of? “Aim low,” he said. “Don’t aim high.”
The targeting foul hasn’t changed from a year ago, but the definition has been expanded and the penalties enhanced.
“The targeting foul is when a player hits a defenseless player above the shoulders,” Shaw said. “Everybody says helmet-to-helmet, but using an elbow, shoulders or the crown or top of the helmet to deliver a blow, that’s a targeting foul. That hasn’t changed.”
What has changed is the meaning of a “defenseless
player.” The category now includes the punter all the time, not just when he’s coming out of his kicking motion. That means no more free shots on a punter aimlessly jogging down the field. A quarterback is now considered a defenseless player after throwing an interception, meaning defensive players can no longer line up to get free and legal “blocks” on an interception returns.
“That doesn’t mean he can’t be blocked,” Shaw said. “He just can’t be hit above the shoulders.”
A year ago, targeting fouls led to a 15-yard penalty. In 2013, the offending player will also be ejected immediately.
“The penalty mimics our fighting rule,” Shaw said. “If you have a targeting foul that’s committed in the first half of a game, then you’re going to be disqualified for that game. If you have a targeting foul that’s committed in the second half of a game, you’ll be disqualified for that game plus the first half of the next game.”
Not all players are thrilled with the changes.
“They’re basically making us play flag football,” said South Carolina cornerback Dominique Easley.
Although the rules emerge from a growing national discussion about player safety, Easley’s confusion is understandable. Until recently, ruthless hits were celebrated by fans and coaches. Defensive coordinators preached “flying to the football.” Old-fashioned “form tackles” were seen as quaint.
But at all levels of the sport — from youth leagues to the NFL — concern about concussions and head injuries has prompted a crackdown on using the helmet as a weapon. Officials want to see more defenders wrapping up a ball-carrier, and fewer tackles made by helmet-first launches.
Coaches are trying to get the new message across before the real games start.
When Auburn cornerback Jonathon Mincy was ejected from the team’s spring football game, it prompted a flurry of sarcasm online. How could a player get ejected from a spring game, many wondered? In reality, the officials were simply enforcing the 2013 rules.
But Mincy’s ejection illustrates the challenges of enforcing the rules in real-time. Auburn coaches looked at the play again and again and determined that it was probably illegal, but certainly not dirty.
Mincy hit a receiver with his forearm above the shoulders as the receiver turned to catch a pass. The receiver was a “defenseless player” but replays indicated that Mincy was reaching to break up the pass, not make a knockout hit.
SEC replay officials will review each targeting foul and can overturn an ejection on the spot. (The 15-yard penalty cannot be overturned and will stand no matter what).
But Shaw told the Birmingham News that Mincy’s ejection wouldn’t have been overturned.
“You would have to have indisputable evidence that there was no contact above the shoulders. I watched the TV and school video. It was not indisputable. That one would have stood.”
Shaw knows that these are difficult calls, and that defensive backs won’t be the only ones under extra scrutiny this year. Officials will be on the spot, too.
“There are three components,” Shaw said. “Coaches have to teach head-up tackling. Players have to execute what they’re being taught. Finally, if the player doesn’t execute it properly, the official has to have the courage to put the marker on the ground. Our expectation is that they will.”
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.