Examining college football's controversial targeting rule and how it impacts Notre Dame
Missing The Target?
Torii Hunter Jr. was targeted by DeShone, then targeted by Deshon.
The rest, he can’t remember.
The play began innocently enough, with a third-and-12 on Texas’ 19-yard line. Notre Dame trailed 31-28 with 36 seconds remaining in the third quarter of its season opener on Sept. 4, and junior quarterback DeShone Kizer took a shotgun snap, dropped back two steps, set his feet and threw.
The football met a leaping Hunter in the middle of the Longhorn end zone, arcing neatly into a window over the linebacker and between the corner and safety. The 6-foot, 195-pound senior corralled it in front of his facemask and pulled it into his stomach.
But unfortunately, he landed — and Deshon Elliott hit the lights.
“I remember everything leading up to the hit,” Hunter said on Sept. 14, after sitting out a home win over Nevada with a concussion the following week. “I remember catching the ball, having it in my hands. But as soon as I got hit I don't remember any of that, and I don't remember being on the ground.
“The (next) thing I remember was taking the step down the stairs to go into the locker room, and that's when I was kind of back aware that that's what was going on.”
Hunter doesn’t remember the side of the safety’s helmet plowing into his facemask, or the football being violently dislodged and bouncing on the burnt orange turf.
He doesn’t remember getting bent backwards like an unwilling participant in an impromptu limbo line, before crumpling in a heap on the white paint of the Texas “E.” He doesn’t remember fellow wide receiver Corey Holmes bending over to squeeze his hand. He doesn’t remember Elliott strutting from the scene while being mobbed by his Texas teammates.
He doesn’t remember lying there, dazed, for a minute and 42 seconds, or his feeble attempts to fight off the Irish trainers and instinctively return to the game.
He doesn’t remember the referees throwing a flag, but that’s because they never threw one.
No flag. No review.
Lots of lingering questions.
“When I originally saw it, I honestly thought that it was targeting,” said Ahmad Brooks, a Texas defensive back from 1998 to 2001 who currently works as a college football analyst and studio host for ESPNU and the Longhorn Network. “That’s based on the letter of the law.”
According to the aforementioned law, “no player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder.”
The NCAA’s list of “defenseless” players clearly includes a receiver "who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier.”
But even if the referees missed a clear instance of targeting, a safeguard was set in place. Beginning in the 2016 season, replay officials were granted authority to review and create a targeting call in “egregious instances in which a foul is not called by the officials on the field.”
In Hunter’s case, a foul was not called on the field, nor was the play reviewed.
Instead of Notre Dame being awarded a 15-yard penalty and a first down on Texas’ 4-yard line, sophomore Justin Yoon’s ensuing field goal attempt was blocked, and the Irish fell 50-47 in double overtime. Roughly four months later, Hunter retired from football, following a string of injuries, to pursue a professional baseball career.
“This is why it’s so hard as a defensive back," Brooks said. "If you’re Deshon Elliott, you probably stayed in a game that you should have been thrown out of because of the targeting call — based on what we’ve seen all year, based on what they’re saying targeting is. But he wasn’t.
“So now you go back to practice and they’re trying to teach this technique and you’re trying to learn this technique, and it’s different in every ballgame. I wish I could say it was (called) the same in the Big Ten as it is in the Big 12, but it’s not.”
The targeting rule may be controversial, but its intent is perfectly clear.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by brain trauma, has been diagnosed in former football players from more than 100 college football programs, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Of the 94 former professional football players that have been studied at Boston University’s VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank, 90 have been diagnosed with CTE. The number of reported concussions in the NFL rose by 32 percent (from 206 to 271) in the 2015 season, according to data the league released in Jan. 2016.
Fundamentally, the targeting rule is designed to eliminate plays where A.) the tackler leads with his head, and B.) the ball-carrier is contacted in the head. Crack down on head shots, and cut out concussions.
But is the rule delivering the intended results?
After the first nine weeks and 573 games of the 2016 season, there were 135 targeting fouls called at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, according to a report by the Orlando Sentinel. Thirty-six of those fouls were overturned, leaving a net of 99 enforced fouls. By comparison, after 573 games in 2015, there were 116 targeting fouls and 90 fouls that were upheld after review.
Though the rule was implemented to deter dangerous tackles, the numbers are still going up.
"We do see a change in player behavior," Rogers Redding, the NCAA's National Coordinator of Officials, insisted last month. "Players are getting their heads out of (the tackle). They’re coming in lower. But we’re still seeing a number of these fouls and the numbers are somewhat going up. So that’s a little bit of a concern, and it’s not clear what’s going on.
“We were hoping over time that the numbers would go down, obviously, because it’s such a dangerous play. I think the consensus remains that we’ve got to get this play out of our game and the players need to continue to be coached and understand what the risks are when they go in high and go in with the crown of the helmet.”
If only it was all that simple.
“They really haven’t come out and held meetings to tell players in further detail what targeting is, a ‘defenseless player,’ ‘forcible contact’ — all of that,” said Avery Sebastian, a safety who played six seasons of college football at Cal (2011-14) and Notre Dame (2015-16). “I feel like we kind of learn it from watching some of the games and hearing the announcers further explain it.”
That puzzling lack of clarity extends far beyond the players. In fact, the NCAA went as far as to issue an interpretation of the targeting rule on Sept. 30, more than four weeks into the 2016 season, clarifying what exactly constitutes the “crown” of the helmet.
“If you think about a king wearing a crown, it goes around his head, not just at the tippy-top pin point,” said Redding, who was previously a referee in the Southwest and Southeastern Conferences. “We were getting too many people that were being overly technical about (the crown being) the very top of the helmet, not the part that starts above the facemask.”
Maybe that’s because, next to the word “crown” in the NCAA rulebook published before the season, there is a one-word clarifier printed in parentheses:
— Robert Franklin (@TheRobFranklin) November 27, 2016
“When you have a rule change in the middle of the season where you take the crown of the helmet from one place and you move it down, it’s just shocking to me that you would implement that during the season,” Brooks said.
“It takes players sometimes up to two, three years to learn the proper tackling style. Now you’re changing it, and in a couple weeks you need to do something different.”
The targeting rule, it seems, has fallen victim to its own ambiguous terminology. And if the players don't understand the rule, how can they be expected to follow it?
“Not everybody knows what forcible contact is,” Sebastian confirmed. “And if a quarterback is throwing and you hit him, is that a defenseless player?
“I feel like a lot of that hasn’t been well-defined, so a lot of people really don’t know what exactly targeting is.”
“I don’t know what that was,” Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame’s victory over Syracuse on Oct. 1, in which freshman safety Devin Studstill was flagged and ejected for targeting. “It was definitely not targeting somebody, but I don’t understand the rule. I just don’t understand it.”
Now, consider who that’s coming from. Kelly has been a collegiate head coach for 26 seasons. He owns more wins than any other active collegiate head coach. He’s one of the most visible coaches in the sport, at one of the most visible programs in the sport.
And he doesn’t understand the targeting rule.
Isn’t that a problem?
“It’s a little bit puzzling as to why a coach would say, ‘I just don’t get that,’” Redding said. “It might not be perfect, but I do know there has been a lot of work done over the past five or six years to make sure that coaches get informed.”
And yet, here was Kelly after the Hunter hit on Sept. 4:
"We just don't understand why it wasn't reviewed by the Big 12. I guess they're going to be reaching out to them to find out why it wasn't reviewed."
And here was Kelly after Kizer was blatantly struck in the helmet while sliding with no flag or review in the home loss to Virginia Tech on Nov. 19:
“That was clearly a quarterback that gave himself up and then was hit. So we're either going to protect the quarterback or we're not. So I don't quite understand what the rule is, because it's being officiated clearly differently.”
And here was Kelly the next day, when pushed further on the issue:
“It's clear on film that it was a helmet-to-helmet (hit) on a defenseless player. You know, it will stand up to the scrutiny. It's just beyond me why it doesn't get reviewed. That's what their job is — to review it, and that's the second time this year that we've had a player that's been targeted and the replay officials have not seen it that way."
Was Kelly unsatisfied? Certainly. Uninformed? Unlikely.
But when it comes to targeting, Notre Dame's head coach has plenty of company.
On the heels of its national convention last week, the American Football Coaches Association applauded the rule's intentions but added that, “at the same time, we are concerned about the consistency of the current targeting rule.”
Likewise, Stanford head coach David Shaw told ESPN last September, “We should go back and reword our rulings, go back and reteach our officials and our replay officials. We're trying to take care of these young men.” Former Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys added last September, “There still is some gray area (with how targeting is called), just like in what’s a catch and what’s not a catch.” And when asked whether he has a clear understanding of the targeting rule in late October, Missouri head coach Barry Odom admitted, “No, I don’t.”
But despite the resounding confusion, Redding stands by his officials' ability to enforce the rule.
“Overall, the consistency is moving in the right direction," Redding said. "It’s never going to be 100 percent, but this is a human activity. At the same time, as far as what the officials understand and what they are looking at and seeing, I think we’re in good shape on that.”
The targeting rule’s intent isn’t simply to change the way football players tackle.
There must also be an evolution in the way football players think.
“I was always taught that football was a game of respect,” said Pat Terrell, a safety who helped Notre Dame win its last national championship in 1988, and who played in the NFL from 1990 to 1998.
“As a defensive back, a targeting hit was part of my game. When I say respect, you wanted to earn respect from an offensive coordinator that would maybe feel nervous about sending a star receiver across the middle, because if they did, there was a likely chance that that valuable asset could be hurt.”
Not so long ago, targeting was taught, rewarded, celebrated, accepted.
It was woven into the fabric of the game, as fundamental as the forward pass.
“I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t trying to inflict punishment when I played,” Terrell said. “That was a good 40 percent of my game. The tougher running backs that we played, the harder I would hit in the first and second quarters to hopefully make my job easier late in the game, so that instead of a powerful running back struggling for that extra yard, hopefully I’ve sent my message by then to just go down, because there’s a crazy No. 15 out there that’s going to try to take his head off.
“That’s the way I played the game.”
That’s the way Brooks played, too, along with so many others. But the culture is changing, and that old-school attitude is under attack.
“It makes you question the stability of the sport,” Brooks said. “One of the reasons I played the game was because it was a release to me. I was able to have this alter ego, where I could go out there and be mad and be angry, and that’s not who I was off the field at all.
“For kids who want to play this game for an outlet of machismo or toughness, unfortunately, I think you have to get your fix for that with hockey or rugby or other forms of sports, because football is glorified flag football. It’s making its way towards that.”
The goal, of course, is to find a happy (and healthy) medium.
Football needs to change. But is this version of the targeting rule the most effective way to change it?
“It’s a slippery slope for me,” Brooks said. “As a defensive back, I’m in favor of player safety, but I’m not in favor of the way this rule was written up. I’m not in favor of the way this rule is executed at all.”
“I think the rule is in really good shape,” countered Redding. “But you can always make some adjustments to, is the language clear enough? But it’s very clear what the intent of the rule is, so we just need to make sure the rule says what it should say.
“From my point of view, that’s happened.”
Regardless of the rule's wording or the punishments put in place, the ultimate objective is to change player behavior. That requires an unwavering commitment to player safety — every meeting, every drill, every practice, every game.
The threat of an ejection, while significant, isn’t enough.
“I definitely think the coaching points have been there to help people to tackle the right way," Sebastian said. "But once you’re at practice you’re getting coached on tackling, but they’re not calling targeting. So it’s kind of a shocker in a game when you make a tackle and it’s something you’ve done a million times in practice and you get called for targeting.”
Come Sept. 2, when Notre Dame hosts Temple in its 2017 season opener, maybe the targeting rule’s language will be more precise. Maybe its enforcement will be more consistent, and Kelly won’t be so consistently confused.
Maybe — hopefully — the game will be a little safer.
That, after all, is the reason behind the rule.
“The implementation of the rule forces coaches to harp on player safety and change their fundamentals of tackling,” said Sebastian, who’s working towards a Master’s degree in business management while training for the NFL. “I do think that’s been a positive thing for the sport.”
Added Terrell: “Me having children, I think football probably has changed for the better. But truly, as a defensive back and as a safety, it’s a 100 percent complete difference. It’s just a different game.”
The targeting rule is the worst thing the game of football has ever adopted
— Ashton White (@awhiteuno) December 30, 2016
One of two things must happen for a targeting foul to be called:
• A player targets and makes forcible contact against an opponent with the crown (area above the facemask) of his helmet.
• A player targets and makes forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder.
• Targeting warrants a 15-yard penalty. For dead-ball fouls, the ball will be marked 15 yards from the succeeding spot.
• There will be an automatic first down if not in conflict with other rules.
• For fouls in the first half, the guilty player will be disqualified for the remainder of the game.
• For fouls in the second half, the guilty played will be disqualified for the remainder of the game and the first half of the next game. If the foul occurs in the second half of the last game of the season, players with remaining eligibility shall serve the suspension during the postseason or the first game of the following season.
• The disqualification must be reviewed by instant replay. If the instant replay official reverses the disqualification, the 15-yard penalty for targeting will not be enforced if the targeting foul is not in conjunction with another personal foul by the same player. If the player commits another personal foul in conjunction with the targeting foul, the 15-yard penalty for that personal foul is enforced according to rule.
Targeting: A player taking aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.
Launch: A player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area.
Forcible contact: Contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.
Defenseless player: A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass; a receiver attempting to catch a forward pass or in position to receive a backward pass, or one who has completed a catch and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier; a kicker in the act of or just after kicking a ball, or during the kick or the return; a kick returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, or one who has completed a catch or recovery and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier; a player on the ground; a player obviously out of the play; a player who receives a blind-side block; a ball carrier already in the grasp of an opponent and whose forward progress has been stopped; a quarterback any time after a change of possession; or a ball carrier who has obviously given himself up and is sliding feet-first.