COLUMBIA — When Missouri receiver L’Damian Washington first saw Jadeveon Clowney’s eye-popping hit on Michigan’s Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl in January, his first reaction was the same as any other college football fan: shock and amazement.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
“It was a (heck) of a hit,” Washington said, eyes wide, seven months after the fact. “It was like SportsCenter’s best for a long time. You have to appreciate that.”
He better. Because hair-raising hits like Clowney’s ( link) may just result in a penalty with severe consequences now, due to the beefed-up enforcement ( link) of the NCAA’s targeting rule that will begin this fall.
Thanks to a rule change passed in March, referees are now required to eject any player who “targets,” or strikes, a defenseless opponent above the shoulders while attempting a tackle. Players ejected in the first half of a game will miss the remainder of the game. Players ejected in the second half will also miss the first half of their next game.
Officials will have access to replay to make sure they get the call — which used to only result in a 15-yard penalty — correct, but will still have to use their best judgment. Take the Clowney hit, for instance. At 6 feet 6, Clowney — who rushed in unblocked on the play — towers over the 5-foot-6 Smith. How was he supposed to get low enough to avoid that penalty? And what happens if a safety has to aim low to tackle a receiver making a diving catch over the middle?
ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads first raised the possibility Clowney’s hit would have been a penalty in July, and Mike Pereira, the NFL’s former vice president of officiating, agreed.
Since then, Steve Shaw — the SEC’s top official — has said that the coordinators from college football’s biggest conferences have agreed that no penalty should be called on plays like Clowney’s.
Still, this blurry line — and the room for interpretation on the next Clowney-esque hit — is what concerns Missouri’s players and coaches.
“When you target and hit above the shoulder, that’s wrong,” said Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. “Player safety is number one. The thing that scares me is when you talk about Clowney, that was such a bang-bang thing. I’d hate someone to get penalized for it because it still is football.”
Several of Steckel’s defensive players admitted to being worried about the rule because at times, striking a player in the helmet is not something they can actively avoid, especially when the first priority is to actually find a way to make the tackle.
“When you’re going so fast, you never think about targeting a player, it just kind of happens,” said senior linebacker Andrew Wilson. “It’s something that if you think about, you’re going to make mistakes.”
Even Washington, a receiver who stands to benefit from the rule change, is a bit torn. On one hand, he thinks it may make the game safer in the long run. On the other hand, he loves to see big hits and insists he knew exactly what he was getting into when he picked football.
“I think it’s great for the long-term (health) of football, protecting receivers, protecting running backs, especially with brain damage past players had as they’ve gotten older,” Washington said. “But I can’t say I’m super happy about it because I knew what I was getting myself into. I chose to play this game for a reason. I knew what came with it. It’s one of the things you sacrifice.”
Junior defensive end Kony Ealy agreed.
“I understand everybody is talking about protecting the players and I totally agree with it, but at the same time, football is football,” Ealy said. “You play this game, you’re going to risk getting hurt.”
Regardless, senior cornerback EJ. Gaines emphasized that while he is also not a fan of the rule, he has to abide by it. And that process will start soon, as Missouri coach Gary Pinkel will put the Tigers through their first padded practice on Monday.
“It will take a while for us to get adjusted,” Gaines said. “Coach Pinkel changed the rules out here. If a hit looks illegal, he’ll let you know.”
Ealy said the Tigers’ defensive line, in particular, is working on different techniques to avoid being flagged for targeting while going after the quarterback.
“We know we can’t hit him above his chest area,” Ealy said. “So we try to work on different ways to where we can get him off balance or knock him down without getting penalized for it. You’d see it in practice if you guys were out here watching us, but you’ll definitely see it in the game, because we’re not going to be penalized for hitting the quarterback.”
That should be music to the ears of Pinkel, who recently declared his intention to cut back on the physicality of preseason camp and preached the importance of player safety.
“Defensive players are a little frustrated with it but we have to protect the people or the game is gonna get hurt bad,” Pinkel said. “I think we’re doing the right things…we’ve got to be proactive here. The athletes are bigger, stronger, faster, quicker, tougher than they’ve ever been. Explosions are bigger than they’ve ever been so we’re just trying to stay ahead of the game a little bit.”
That said, the 61-year old Pinkel saw the Clowney hit, and well, let’s just say Missouri’s old-school coach also sees where his defensive coordinator and players are coming from.
“By the way,” Pinkel added, unprompted, “I think that was a good hit.”