Associated Press Notre Dame safety Nicco Fertitta, left, was called for targeting and ejected from last season's game against Southern California for this hit on running back Aca'Cedric Ware as Irish safety Drue Tranquill watches.@cutline: during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, in Los Angeles. USC won 45-27. Fertitta was ejected from the game after being called for targeting on the play. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Associated Press UCLA wide receiver Jordan Lasley, below, is hit by UNLV defensive back Kenny Keys after catching a pass last season during a Bruins victory. Keys was ejected for targeting on the play.@cutline: UCLA won 42-21.
Wednesday, August 02, 2017 1:00 am
Targeting debate grows
Big Ten keeps close watch as NCAA balks on helmet-to-helmet changes
JADE WASHBURN | For The Journal Gazette
Season 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
Games 766 818 828 829 839
Fouls upheld 87 31 72 115 144
Overturned N/A 24 26 43 51
Fouls/game 0.11 0.04 0.09 0.14 0.17
CHICAGO – Protecting defenseless skill players. Or penalizing prolific defenders.
That is the fundamental debate surrounding one of college football's most controversial topics; head-to-head contact, or “targeting.”
Big Ten officiating coordinator Bill Carollo's opinion was almost as much in demand as colorful Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh's preview about the 2017 season during the conference's football media days last week.
While Harbaugh's popularity can be attributed to his unpredictable antics and unorthodox perspectives, the additional attention surrounding Carollo stemmed from the NCAA's recent ruling on its targeting rule.
On March 3, the NCAA Football Rules Committee announced its decision not to amend any recent updates to the targeting rule after speculation that it might soften its stance and lessen penalties.
The rule – which mandates a 15-yard penalty and an automatic ejection of the penalized player – was instituted in 2013 and has been revised twice. In 2014, the committee enabled replay booth officials to overturn the flag and the ejection if the play in question is deemed not flagrant.
In 2016, replay booth officials were given the power to make targeting calls from the booth that were missed on the field. The rule also stipulates that a player is suspended from the first half of the following game if the targeting occurs during the second half or overtime.
“Players' health and safety, ... that's still our No. 1 priority,” Carollo said. “If we miss a targeting call, I am really, really disappointed.
“I'm telling our officials, 'When it's close like that, and it has to do with players' health and safety, we want the flag thrown.' I want a discussion, collaboration among the officials, and if you're still not sure, we'll send it up to the replay booth.”
Carollo, a former NFL official and the conference's officiating coordinator since 2009, also emphasized the addition of professionally certified medial training staff to the replay booth to monitor players' health and in-game safety.
Among the proposed changes ultimately tabled by the NCAA was to allow a penalized player to remain in the game while upholding the 15-yard penalty in instances with insufficient video evidence of targeting.
As it stands, the definition of targeting includes at least one of the following: making “forcible contact” with the crown of the helmet (to any part of the body) or forcible contact to the head or neck area of a “defenseless” player. The latter can include usage of an arm, an elbow, a hand, first or shoulder in targeting the head or neck area, in addition to the helmet.
“We've made a lot of progress not only in adopting the rule but also implementing the rule over the years,” Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. “I'm happy with where we are.”
During the 2016 season, there were 191 targeting calls among FBS teams, 144 of which were upheld. That's up from 115 upheld ejections in 2015 and double 2014's ejection total.
Relative to the other Power-5 conferences, the Big Ten experienced the second fewest ejections per game last season at 0.16, while the Big 12 had the fewest with 0.12 ejections per game. The Southeastern Conference led the nation in targeting calls with 0.27 ejections per game.
“Certainly, we don't have a big problem in the Big Ten with regard to number of targeting calls compared to any of the major five conferences or all FBS,” Corolla said. “We're below the average, but it doesn't mean that one isn't too many when we have it.”
Indiana coach Tom Allen, who was the Hoosiers' defensive coordinator last season, praised ongoing efforts by officials and the NCAA to polish the definition and the protocol of the rule.
“I understand why they have the rule, and I'm all for doing anything we can do to help our game be safer, to help prolong the integrity of it,” Allen said. “I didn't like it in the beginning when they were just throwing the flag and having the penalty regardless. Now it's consistent. If it's targeting, it's targeting. If it's not, it's not.”
Allen plans to devote additional time with his team to tackling drills and other exercises that help prevent targeting, such as video analysis.
“Ever since this rule has come into play, we've adjusted the way we teach our tackling,” Allen said. “We've lowered our target. We call it a 'strike zone,' and we strike from under the armpits to above the knees, and that's where we're going to tackle guys.
“I think when you emphasize that as a team and you lower your target, we've had a lot less of those with the staffs that I've been on, and I expect that to continue.”
Purdue quarterback David Blough, who led the Big Ten in passing yards in 2016, is all too familiar with the dangers of helmet-to-helmet collisions. As a freshman in 2015, Blough took a violent hit from Iowa safety Jordan Lomax in a 40-20 loss. He suffered a concussion that prevented him from playing in the following week's Old Oaken Bucket game, which the Boilermakers lost, 54-36.
Although Lomax was not called for targeting on the play, Blough recalled the fear of regaining consciousness in the opposing locker room of Kinnick Stadium.
“I woke up in the locker room in Kinnick even though I walked off the field of my own power,” Blough said. “That stuff's scary. ... Those are good rules that help our game and make it safer and make it more friendly for young kids to play as well. If they can see professionals and college guys hitting the right way, then maybe it'll change the next generations of hitters.”
Boilermakers linebacker Danny Ezechukwu supports the rule and said Purdue is proactive in its approach to reducing targeting calls, using precise tackling drills that focus on head placement and tracking the hip.
“I definitely understand it,” Ezechukwu said. “In the heat of the moment in the game, it's really frustrating, but at the end of the day, when you sit back and observe what the NCAA is trying to do, you can't be mad at them. They're just trying to give guys longevity on life.”
However, Ezechukwu also acknowledged only so much can be done to help defenders avoid targeting calls simply due to the game's kinesiology.
“Some things, you can't really control because it's big guys moving really, really fast,” Ezechukwu said. “It's like defying gravity almost, so some stuff is really just going to be out of your control.”
While the NCAA has rested its case for the upcoming season, research on the long-term side effects of concussions, specifically the NFL's documented problem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy poses the question: Are more rule changes on the horizon for college football?
The likely answer is yes.
Other rule changes not directly related to targeting have been approved for the 2017 season, such as banning players from leaping over the line of scrimmage at the snap. But with such a strong national dialogue on targeting and players' safety, additional revision of the targeting rule seems more likely than not.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald went so far as to suggest the possibility of NCAA sanctions for players or programs that have recurring problems with targeting and supported “making the rule even more robust.”
“I think we maybe need to take a look at repeat offenders,” Fitzgerald said. “I think if a young man has multiple targeting fouls, maybe as a conference or maybe even the NCAA needs to step in, and as the great coaches out there, either you're coaching it or you're allowing it to happen. Which one is it?”