NCAA coaches agree: College football targeting rules sometimes miss the mark

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Steven Wright grew up idolizing former San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott. As Wright progressed in his football career from Pop Warner to playing defensive back at the University of Southern Florida, he would envision making the kind of bone-crushing hits that Lott had a reputation for making.

A highlight reel of Lott’s greatest hits watched through the prism of what’s a legal hit in today’s game would likely be a master class for officials in how to call targeting.

“There was a great pride in ‘headhunting’; it was kind of no holds barred,” said Wright, who primarily played safety. “I definitely think the game is better where it is now than it was 20 years ago, and I think it’s in a better place than it was 10 years ago, and even now five years ago. I think these rules have made the game better.”

The NCAA first implemented a targeting rule in 2008 in an attempt to make the game safer primarily by penalizing — and thus eliminating — direct contact to the head, preventing head and neck injuries.

Targeting is slightly down in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Division compared to last season. There’s one targeting call for every 4.0 games played compared to one in every 3.7 games last season, according to the NCAA.

Wright, who is now the head varsity coach at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, sends his players to college much better equipped at heads-up tackling than he ever was. But he added that as much as it’s been emphasized and taught over the past decade-plus, even at the prep level, the game is played at such a speed that sometimes it’s inevitable a player is going to make a tackle with his head down.

Intent vs. impact

Player safety remains a point of emphasis in the ACC, which is why commissioner Jim Phillips told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that targeting has him “most consumed of any issue from an officiating standpoint.”

Every hit that’s labeled targeting isn’t intentional, and because of that, North Carolina coach Mack Brown is among the coaches who would like to see the targeting rule implemented in a way similar to how basketball handles flagrant fouls. A flagrant 1 foul is deemed unnecessary contact, while a flagrant 2 foul is considered excessive and merits an ejection.

The NCAA defines targeting as forcible contact with the crown of the helmet or forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent. And the emphasis and enforcement has cleaned up tackling through the years to bring an end to defenders making the kind of brutal hits that led to concussions and other head injuries.

‘Happening so fast’

N.C. State safety Tanner Ingle knows the rule all too well. He was ejected three times last season for targeting and had to miss the Wolfpack’s Gator Bowl appearance as a result of the provision that forces players to sit out a game after three targeting calls. It made him much more focused all of the offseason on making the right kind of hit.

Ingle said his focus was “working on my strike zone and just channeling my passion and my intensity.”

It must have worked, because so far this season, Ingle has not had a targeting penalty.

“Ultimately, I feel like a lot of those targeting calls are results of accidents and just bang-bang plays,” Duke defensive tackle DeWayne Carter said. “It’s kind of like a catch and real fast hit. You can’t really control how you come in.”

A perfect example appeared to be UNC freshman linebacker Power Echols in the team’s loss to Florida State on Saturday. Echols was running down the field on kickoff coverage, and his hit, viewed in real time, seemed clean. Once the play was reviewed and the film of it slowed down, Echols was ejected for targeting.

Working toward change

Through the first six weeks of this season, 179 plays have been reviewed for targeting. In 104 cases, targeting was confirmed and the player was ejected from the game. On the remaining 75 plays, the targeting call was overturned and the defender was allowed to keep playing.

But Brown believes there needs to be more nuance in the enforcement of the rule.

“We need to go back and revisit, in my opinion, what is a shot where a young person looks like he is actively trying to hurt an unprotected player, as compared to a guy who tackles a guy and we think he tackled him too aggressively,” Brown said.

Brown said targeting should have two levels. If a defender is viewed to have purposely launched himself head-first at a ball carrier or receiver, he should be ejected, as the rule currently requires. But when it’s a play that can be viewed almost as incidental head contact, sure, give a 15-yard penalty, but allow the defender to stay in the game.

While he embraces the rule to suspend a player after three targeting calls, Duke coach David Cutcliffe also agrees with Brown.

“We have to understand the difference in incidental contact and cheap shots, launching yourself to hit a player that is defenseless,” Cutcliffe said. “The old guy going down the middle of the field and you take that guy out. I don’t care if it’s with your shoulder. That’s not a good part of the game anymore.”

The NCAA rules committee has shown a willingness to tweak the rule. In 2013, it established the disqualification aspect to being called for targeting and in 2016, it added a replay review of all targeting calls.

Before the 2020 season started, it also took out the provision that a defender called for targeting was banished to the locker room. Now that player can remain on the sidelines with his team.

Are more changes coming? Perhaps. But even if there are, players and coaches all know that sometimes, even with all of the preventive measures in place, the speed of the game can be overwhelming.

“The game’s just happening so fast, you’re trying to make a play, and to be honest with you, sometimes the situation is kind of hard for a player not to,” UNC linebacker Cedric Gray said. “We’re trained not to, but I mean, you know, sometimes I think things like that are just going to happen.”

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