Be prepared for several college football rule changes this season that will cause confusion among the fans and controversy between players and coaches, officials and the replay booth. They were all made with the hope of enhancing player safety.
The biggest changes are to further protect players from getting hit in a “defenseless position.” Clearly, the rule tweak that will be most apparent is when a receiver goes airborne to catch a pass. Beginning this season, the receiver must be allowed to come down and make a “football move” before he can be hit or tackled. No more intentional or unintentional mid-air collisions caused by defenders without a flag being thrown and a player being thrown out.
That might produce more skilled cornerbacks and safeties, but could also create more pass interference calls. Pass defenders will have to cover receivers more closely and go up when they go up instead of getting there a step late and nailing the receiver before he comes down with the ball. But tighter coverage could also mean more interference flags.
And hitting anyone, whether in the air or on the ground, head first will be heavily enforced this season, according to ACC Supervisor of Football Officials Doug Rhoads. “You cannot lower your head and hit a player with the crown of your helmet anywhere,” explains Rhoads. “The one clear rule we give our officials is ‘When in question, it’s a foul.’ That’s the way we look at all calls and will definitely look at the defenseless player and initiating contact with the crown of the helmet calls.”
These calls are more punitive in 2013. They carry an automatic 15-yard penalty and ejection from the game. Before, flagrant fouls were much more in the eyes of the referees. But the ejections are reviewable through either a coaching challenge or from the replay booth. If what was first called as “spearing” is shown to be, say, shoulder-first contact, the ejected player can return to the game.
However, the 15-yard penalty stands because, according to the rules, penalties are not reviewable. Go figure. So if a player is thrown out for committing a flagrant foul, and the replay shows he did not do it, the player can come back — while the penalty stands even though it was really no infraction.
An ejection will also carry over if a player is thrown out in the second half. He then must sit out the first half of the next game. Best to get ejected in the last minute of the first half with your team leading by three touchdowns!
Larry Fedora said at his season-opening press conference Friday that he believes “every coach out there” is concerned about the rule changes and, “if they’re not they will be when one of their players gets ejected.”
Fedora insisted he is a strong proponent of increasing safety in football, but “we’re putting a lot on the officials when it’s a bang-bang type of moment.”
“Look, we have big, strong and fast guys running into each other at full speed,” he added. “You can’t take injuries out of the game. There’s a fine line between taking aggressiveness away from a player and enhancing the chances of him getting injured.”
The Tar Heels have made it part of their preseason training camp heading into Thursday night’s opener at South Carolina on ESPN. Fedora said the team has watched video, the coaches have talked to officials and they have even had the zebras come in and talk to the team. And Fedora’s staff is actually coaching how to tackle differently than in the past.
One danger, Fedora says, of “lowering the target area” to avoid helmet-to-helmet hits is that increases the possibility of more blown-out knees, “and those are devastating, career-threatening” injuries, he said.
So is the college game willing to trade more hits that will knock players out indefinitely for preventing more long-term debilitating head and neck injuries? Seems that way, especially with all of the studies and new information coming out on concussions from the NFL to right here at UNC.
Oh, there is another rule change that would have reversed the monstrous hit by 6-foot-7 South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney on Michigan running back Vincent Smith last season, which may have broken a record for YouTube views. Smith did not have full possession of the ball when Clowney blasted him in the backfield and Smith’s helmet (which he had not buckled, by the way) went flying.
This season, that’s a 15-yard penalty and Clowney is watching the rest of the game from the sideline instead of becoming an ESPN cult hero.
In the past, it seems that running backs have been “blown up” regularly by hard-charging defenders whether they were blockers or ball carriers receiving hand-offs. Now, the ball has to be fully tucked away before a defender can lower the boom. Good luck calling that one.
“I don’t know how this is all going to work out,” Fedora said. “It’s a big judgment call.”