SEC officials coordinator says ‘targeting’ rule will help player safety

If Steve Shaw is correct, the new rule that increases the penalty for college football players who “target” opponents could have a dramatic, yet positive, effect on the way the game is played this fall.

“This rule change is probably the most significant (I’ve seen) in my tenure,” said Shaw, the coordinator of officials for the Southeastern Conference.

Shaw, who has been officiating for over 20 years, said Wednesday that the new rule — passed by the NCAA in March — requires referees to eject any player who “targets,” or strikes, a defenseless opponent above the shoulders with his elbow, first, forearm, helmet or shoulder 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.

“Playing time is a motivator to our players,” said Shaw, who was speaking at the SEC Media Days at the Wynfrey Hotel. “The rules committee really believes this will make a difference.”

Previously, players called for targeting were only assessed a 15-yard personal foul. But the new penalties are more in line with the consequences for in-game fighting, the result of college football’s increased emphasis on player safety.

“We just don’t know what happens when you get a concussion, how it affects you when you’re 50, so that’s what we’re trying to change,” Shaw said. “Lower your target, keep your head up, see what you hit.”

The good news for officials is that with mandatory ejection now a possibility — something that could easily swing a game — they will have some help in getting the call right. Officials will now use instant replay to review every targeting foul, and if it is shown that a foul did not occur, the ejected player can be inserted back into the game, though the 15-yard penalty will stand.

“We have to be right 100 percent of the time,” Shaw said. “(But) the rulebook says when in question, it is a foul. Players have to execute what they’re being taught.”

Shaw compared it to the adjustment players had to make before the 2011 season, when taunting penalties essentially became spot fouls, essentially giving officials the authority to wipe out touchdowns.

“We talked about it a lot, but once we got in the season, it was no big deal,” Shaw said. “Players changed their game.”

The threat of ejection isn’t the only way the targeting rule has been beefed up. The definition of a defenseless player has also been expanded to include quarterbacks (when the offense turns the ball over), and punters and kickers (for the duration of a play).

“He can still be hit, but a flag will be thrown if he’s hit above the shoulders,” Shaw said.

Other situations in which a player can be considered defenseless include: a player in the act of or just after throwing a pass, a receiver attempting to complete a catch (or one that has not had time to protect himself after doing so), a returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, a player on the ground, a player vulnerable to a blind-side block and a ball carrier whose forward progress has been stopped.

The NCAA’s definition of defenseless casts a wide net, for sure, but when asked whether the rule change might result in fewer highlight-reel hits, Shaw downplayed the idea, saying it’s possible to promote player safety and allow for bone-jarring collisions at the same time.

“I’ve got hundreds of plays (on film) that are great plays by defenders where they’re blowing a guy up, but they’re not doing it on his head,” Shaw said. “So I don’t think it will change our great game at all.”