April 17, 2018 11:39:42 PM
STARKVILLE -- On this November third down against UMass, Johnathan Abram was doing what he does best. Mississippi State's hard-hitting safety was flying down the left side of the offensive formation, barreling into the blind spot of quarterback Ross Comis.
The ensuing sack was violent and the celebration was jubilant -- for Abram. Every other Bulldog on the field saw the flag fly to the scene of the crime. Once again, Abram would find himself in the middle of a targeting review, and one that would be confirmed.
Abram is well aware he found himself involved in the targeting rule noticeably more than any other Bulldog last season -- even in last year's spring game, as his violent hit caused then-MSU coach Dan Mullen to end the game a few plays early. Now that MSU has few proven commodities at safety, Abram knows that's a place for improvement for him as MSU concludes spring practice this week.
"All the coaches talked to me about it. I talked to myself about it," Abram said. "It really hurt, being out of the Alabama game for the first half. I took that personally."
Through it all, Abram was still one of MSU's most productive defenders, finishing second on the team with 71 tackles, five of them for a loss, with two sacks, two forced fumbles and five pass break-ups. He asserted himself as a starter as the season went along and has made himself, alongside Mark McLaurin, as one of few proven commodities at the safety position.
Now all the Bulldogs need is to keep him on the field.
Under the former defensive coaching staff, led by coordinator Todd Grantham, all talk of avoiding targeting began with the so-called strike zone: where defenders aim on a ball carrier's body. That idea remains burned into Abram's brain.
"You can aim for the upper thigh or you can aim for the torso," Abram said. "You eliminate targeting because if you strike them on the rise, you hit them in the chest or stomach."
His new coaches plan on adding to it.
"It's like any industry, you study best practices, and right now keeping the head out of tackling is critical," defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "It's leading with the shoulder pad, tackling on the rise, ripping the arm up through the ball carrier and driving for five. We're trying to teach best practices and that you don't use the helmet or the crown of the helmet as a weapon in any way, shape or form."
Shoop is taking tackling form in the modern era one step further, beyond the head injuries that inspired the targeting rule a few years ago. He has noticed that the increase in open field tackling brought about by modern spread offenses has caused more shoulder injuries in defenders, so he emphasizes teaching his players to start with their hands in a holstered position by their hips and ripping them up. That way it keeps his players from extending their arms laterally and injuring the shoulder as the arm gets pulled back by the ball carrier.
The catch in those situations, particularly with targeting, is practicing it well requires full contact in practice, which coaches are growing more hesitant to do consistently.
"Those are the hardest things: when we're using these sleds or other apparatus we're using to tackle, it doesn't move like a quarterback or slip like a running back or dip a shoulder," Shoop said. "The phrase we've been using is all gas, no brakes. If you're using the proper angle and proper form, there shouldn't be anything other than a proper form tackle."
Come fall, he hopes for dozens of them from Abram. He said targeting does not enter his mind while he's on the field, but he is focusing on his technique to avoid it come fall.
"The main thing I've been working on is lowering my strike zone so I can avoid targeting," Abram said. "I don't lead with the crown of my helmet, it's just my helmet getting up in the way."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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