College football players who target opponents with above-the-shoulder hits this season could find themselves immediately kicked out of the game.
In the most significant of this year’s rule changes — SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw says it is the most significant in two decades — the NCAA has called on game officials to automatically eject players who deliver a hit to the head of a defenseless opponent.
If the infraction occurs in the first half of a game, the player will be benched for the remainder of that game. If it occurs in the second half, he will be benched for the remainder of the game and the first half of the following one.
“Playing time is a motivator to our players,” Shaw said. “The rules committee really believes this will make a difference. … What I hope is that this gets through to the players (and) they change behavior.”
The new sanction is part of college football’s attempt to eliminate above-the-shoulder hits that imperil player safety. How well the new rule works depends, of course, on how it is administered. Conferences have sent word to officiating crews that it should be aggressively enforced.
In last season’s SEC Championship game, Alabama defensive end Quinton Dial made a helmet-to-helmet hit on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who was out of the play after throwing an interception in the second quarter. No flag was thrown in that case, although the SEC later said a personal-foul penalty should have been called on Dial.
“I can speak for all quarterbacks and say that I’m very happy for the new rule,” Murray said.
He added that defensive players commonly seek out the quarterback after a turnover and take a shot at him.
“Doesn’t matter if you’re 20 yards, 30 yards, 50 yards away from the ball, they’re still looking to knock the quarterback out,” Murray said. “I just don’t think that’s what the game is meant for. You’re not trying to kill someone. You know, (you should) block someone and make a lane for your guy to run; don’t try to completely take someone’s head off, especially if they’re not even near the play.”
The new rule has wide support from coaches and administrators, tempered only by some concerns about ejections of players for accidental helmet-to-helmet contact.
“We’ve got to protect kids,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “It’s such a great game, it’s our calling to make sure we make the rule changes to make it safer. I don’t think it’s going to hurt the quality of the game in any way.”
LSU coach Les Miles said the new rule is “great,” provided it is “not wildly applied.”
“Protecting our players is a great rule, but it’s going to be very difficult to administer,” Miles said. “Because if I go to tackle you and I lower myself and you go to defend yourself from being tackled and you lower yourself and we collide at the chest and I come up and hit the head, oh my gosh, suddenly I’m targeting.”
In an attempt to avoid misapplication of the rule, a player’s ejection is subject to video review and can be overturned by the replay official. The ejection is in addition to the previously prescribed 15-yard penalty.
According to the rule, the infraction should be called when a player initiates contact against any opponent with the top of his helmet and when a player initiates contact to the head or neck area of a “defenseless opponent” with the helmet, forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder.
The definition of a defenseless opponent has been expanded. Examples include a player in the act of or just after throwing a pass, a receiver attempting to catch a pass or just after doing so, a kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball, a kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, a player on the ground, a player obviously out of the play, a quarterback any time after a change of possession (such as Murray on that SEC Championship game interception) and a ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped.
OTHER RULE CHANGES
Spiking the ball: If less than three seconds remain on the game clock, teams will not be permitted to spike the ball in order to stop the clock.
Clock runoff: Ten seconds will be run off when the clock is stopped for an injury in the final minute of either half.
Blocking below waist: The rule change is pretty technical, but SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw boils it down: “The concept you’ll see in the open field, to block below the waist, you’ll have to do it from the front.”
Changing numbers: A player who switches numbers during the game must report the change to the referee, who will announce it.
Duplicating numbers: No more than one player at the same position on a team will be permitted to wear the same number, eliminating situations where a team, for example, might have two quarterbacks share the same number.
Adjusting the clock: Instant replay can be used to adjust the clock at the end of each quarter, whereas previously that was allowed only at the end of each half.