New emphasis on high hits could lead to ejections, suspensions

July 20, 2013 10:45:41 PM

Matthew Stevens - [email protected]


HOOVER, Ala. -- Any hit above the shoulder pads will receive special attention this season. 


In an attempt to make college football safer, the NCAA Football Rules Committee has instructed officials to call penalties against players who target or hit a defenseless player. Those players could be ejected and subsequently suspended. 


"This rule change is probably the most significant rule change in my tenure," Southeastern Conference Coordinator of Officials Steve Shaw said Wednesday at the league's annual media days. 


The rule allows a replay official to review video of the play to determine if the call on the field was correct. 


"Instant replay has continued to evolve over time, but instant replay is going to play a big part in this," Shaw said. "We have to be right 100 percent of the time." 


Shaw said the new ruling has three components -- coaches, players, and officials -- that have to work together to ensure safety. 


"Coaches have to teach head-up tackling," Shaw said. "Players have to execute what they're being taught, and if a player doesn't execute it properly, the official has to have the courage to put the marker on the ground." 


Shaw, who has been officiating for more than 20 years, said the new rule, which the NCAA passed in March, requires referees to eject any player who "targets," or strikes, a defenseless opponent above the shoulders with his elbow, first, forearm, helmet, or shoulder while attempting a tackle. Players ejected in the first half of a game will miss the remainder of the game. Players ejected in the second half also will miss the first half of their next game. 


The SEC office has a history of handing out suspensions for violent hits to players who weren't penalized in a game. 


"Don't take this the wrong way, but when we're playing in a game, we're not thinking about injuries, concussions, or getting ejected for a hit about the shoulders," University of Mississippi linebacker Mike Marry said Tuesday. "We're not trying to hurt people when we tackle them, but sometimes the speed don't allow for everything to go right." 


The definition of a defenseless player has been expanded to include quarterbacks (when the offense turns the ball over) and punters and kickers (for the duration of a play). Other situations in which a player can be considered defenseless include: a player in the act of or just after throwing a pass, a receiver attempting to complete a catch (or one that has not had time to protect himself after doing so), a returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, a player on the ground, a player vulnerable to a blind-side block, and a ball carrier whose forward progress has been stopped. 


Players have discussed the new rule and said they fear they could be punished for making instinctual plays in a violent game. Mississippi State University junior defensive lineman Kaleb Eulls, who has started all 26 games of his college career but hasn't been flagged for a personal foul, said he is in favor of officials increasing safety in the game. However, he said the added emphasis could cause more injuries. 


"If you're worried about how and where I can hit, you'll be a step slow," Eulls said Wednesday. "It seems to me that if you're a step slow because you're thinking or worried about getting ejected for a hit, that's when you get hurt. I don't know how to solve that issue, but hopefully (my fear) won't happen." 


Prior to this season, players called for targeting, or head hunting, as it is commonly referred, were assessed a 15-yard personal foul penalty. The new penalties are more in line with the consequences for in-game fighting. 


"Throwing a punch after the whistle or fighting after the play is a stupid choice you make that costs your team," Auburn University cornerback Chris Davis said. "Hitting a guy above the pads sometimes isn't a choice. It just happens." 


Shaw ended his presentation by saying he and conference officials are convinced players and coaches will adjust to the rule change like they did two years ago when the taunting rule became a spot foul. 


"I've got hundreds of plays (on film) that are great plays by defenders where they're blowing a guy up, but they're not doing it on his head," Shaw said, "so I don't think it will change our great game." 




Malzahn and Bielema argue over safety of no-huddle offense 


Hours after Shaw made his presentation to the media, new University of Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and new Auburn University coach Gus Malzahn added to the emphasis on player safety by arguing about no-huddle offenses. 


Bielema, a former member of the NCAA's Football Rules Committee as coach at the University of Wisconsin, proposed a rules change at the SEC spring meetings that would create "a 15-second substitution period" after each first down to allow defenses to substitute. At the meetings, Bielema framed the rules change as a player-safety issue. 


When Malzahn was asked Wednesday about Bielema's proposal, he said, "When I first heard that, to be honest with you, I thought it was a joke. As far as health or safety issues, that's like saying the defense shouldn't blitz after a first down because they're a little fatigued and there's liable to be a big collision in the backfield." 


Bielema, who has brought a two-back and two-tight end run attack to Arkansas from Wisconsin, responded later in the day by saying he was "not a comedian." 


"Gus is an educated man, and he's got his own faith and belief, but what I said I didn't just throw that out there," Bielema said. "When I go into a young man's home, when you go to recruit a kid that's 17 years old, move him halfway across the country, you can look a mom and dad in the eye, and you say, 'I'm going to look out for the personal well-being of your son in everything that I do.' " 


Bielema contends the 15-second substitution period would allow defenses inability to remove fatigued players who are more likely be involved in future injuries. 


"You cannot tell me a player after play five is the same player he is after play 15," Bielema said. "If that exposes him to a risk of injury, then that's my fault. I just can't do anything about it because the rules do not allow me to substitute a player in whether I'm on offense or defense." 


Malzahn said he was more concerned with a rules change that would enable officials to identify players who are faking injuries to slow down no-huddle offenses and affect the pace of the game. 


"That's where college football's going," Malzahan said. "You see more and more teams using pace. I think you'll see it more and more at the next level also." 


Bielema responded by saying Malzahn had his form of employment incorrect again. 


"In addition to not being a comedian, I'm not an actor," he said. "I can't tell you how to tell a kid how to fake an injury." 


Malzahn and University of Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze have said there's no data that suggests playing an up-tempo offense is hazardous to an athlete's health, but logic would suggest the longer a player is on the field, the more opportunity he has for a injury. Last year, the University of Oregon ran 81.46 plays per game and Texas A&M ran 78.8. By comparison, a Bielema-coached Wisconsin team had averaged more than 10 fewer plays per game. 


"I sat in a Rules Committee meeting (and) we changed the rules significantly in the world of kicking," Bielema said. "We moved the ball from the 35- to 30-yard-line. Why did we do that? We did it for player safety. We've dramatically decreased the number of concussions and traumatic injuries on kickoffs because of that rule change. If we can have the same effect and change the amount of injuries to an offensive and defensive player on this, would that not be a good resolution?' "