The University of Akron football team put on the pads for Monday’s practice at InfoCision Stadium.
That probably couldn’t have come too soon for the defensive players because they will be drawing closer attention this season — especially linebackers and defensive backs.
That’s because the NCAA is tweaking a rule in the hopes of improving player safety. The targeting rule, which penalized a player 15 yards if in an official’s judgment the player launches his body or uses his elbows or forearms to deliver a blow to the head, will now result in an automatic ejection from the game.
If a player is ejected in the first half, he sits the rest of the game. If he’s tossed in the second half, he’s gone for the rest of the game and the first half of the next.
The rule’s enforcement proved to be a point of emphasis for Bill Carollo, coordinator of football officials for the Midwest Football Officials Alliance since 2009. The group serves the Mid-American Conference, Big Ten and Missouri Valley Conference.
At MAC media day in Detroit in July, Carollo said the enforcement of the new rule in-game would be immediate and severe. However, it will be subject to an immediate review in the official’s booth. There was a sense that he knew how significant a change the rule represents.
Zips coach Terry Bowden agreed.
“They get our attention,” he said after Monday’s practice. “As [Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher] said: the effect needs to be immediate and severe. They’re going to call it right there. They’re not going to change it and they’re going to throw you out of the game. That’s not negotiable.”
Bowden’s comments sound conflicted regarding the issue.
The primary problem: Defensive players can’t lower their head for a boom, but offensive players still can, providing what could be termed an advantage.
“As Coach [defensive coordinator Chuck] Amato says: until they keep an offensive guy from lowering his head, it’s not a fair deal,” Bowden said.
Given the nature of the Zips’ defense, which is predicated on playing fast, problems could present themselves in the flow of a game if players, who are often running on pure adrenaline, seek to make a big play.
“It’s for the safety of offensive players. Most defensive players are aggressive,” sophomore linebacker Justin March said. “I think it is more slanted toward the offense to keep them healthy.”
Although the rule is less likely to affect him, senior defensive lineman Nico Caponi understands what the defense must do.
“We just have to be more careful,” he said.
That’s easy to say. In the heat of a game, it could prove hard to do.
Think back to last season when the Zips played the Miami RedHawks tough. They were delivering punishing and legal blows. However, they were flagged multiple times for personal fouls, Amato recalled.
This coming season, multiple players would have walked to the showers early.
Bowden and Amato know that the call being made could be subjective.
“It is subjective as all penalties are. They’re not supposed to be subjective,” Bowden said. “There are objective things that have to happen to call it, but what they’re telling us is they’re going to err on the side of the call.”
But Amato and Bowden are being proactive. They’ve placed a shirt on sleds to simulate its position on an opposing player and are walking players through the proper tackling technique.
When the team has officials in camp this summer, they’ll be asked to pay particular attention to that when the heavy hitting begins.
“We’ve got to do it. It’s reality,” Amato said. “We have to take it seriously.’’
Fundamental fairness resides at the heart of this issue. Offensive players can still lower their heads. Amato said he hopes the NCAA looks at it as a two-step issue with changes on the offensive side of the ball coming next.
“They have to go to the next step,” he said.
George M. Thomas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.