BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Count Ellis Johnson as a fan of the NCAA’s expansion of the “targeting” rule in college football.
He wants to see head injuries eliminated from the game as much as anyone. But there is one thing that gives him pause: Auburn’s defensive coordinator believes there will be more injuries to players on both offense and defense.
“If they keep bringing us down lower and lower, I think you’re going to see knee injuries on offensive players and neck injuries on defensive players,” he said during a meeting with reporters on Tuesday. “The one thing I hope that it will stop is guys leaving their feet, ‘launching,’ if you will, and going straight to the head.”
Johnson said the Tigers’ coaching staff met with officials on Monday, where they were showed examples of hits that were both legal and those that would be cause for ejection under the expanded interpretation of the rule.
“A lot of times the ball carrier or the defender — whoever is getting ready to be in the collision — will naturally drop their hips or drop their shoulders for the collision, and that brings the head down,” he said. “So a lot of these things are not intentional.”
Take Jadeveon Clowney’s “hit heard ’round the world” from the Outback Bowl in January, where the superlative South Carolina defensive end leveled Michigan running back Vincent Smith. On Monday during ACC media days, an officiating coordinator said he would have ejected Clowney for the hit.
When informed of the coordinator’s comment, Johnson could only shake his head, saying that was “one of them I’m talking about,” where a clean hit with no intent to purposely injure the other player is now grounds for an ejection.
“Had (Clowney) come in on a quarterback and (forearm) hit him or stuck him with his hat or something of that nature where it’s something you obviously could have avoided (that’s fine),” said Johnson, before inserting some X’s and O’s into the discussion. “But what (Clowney) did, to me, this guy was stunting on that thing. That was a corner blitz with him running a slant stunt and somebody turned him loose and he hits a guy a yard in the backfield. Within that much time, there’s no ability for him to change his body. He can’t get lower. I don’t see how that can be called.”
Perhaps surprisingly to some, not all clips the coaching staff saw deemed “ejection-worthy” came from defensive players. Plays featuring downfield blocks by offensive players and those on special teams were also included in the official’s instructional package. But as Johnson knows, the rule was largely aimed at changing the way defensive players tackle.
So what does he tell his unit?
“We’re going to have to coach it,” he said. “Some in particular, like the blindside hits, you’re going to have to coach it to be more of a shielding attitude than in an aggressive, attacking attitude and cut out on the old blindside-type of hits. But the ones where you’re trying to tackle somebody and you don’t leave your feet, we’re just going to have to deal with the consequences, I guess, if it occurs.”
Those are the plays, regardless of how many rule changes are put in place to eradicate it, Johnson believes will never go away.
“Some of them, guys are still running, and you see them kind of just turn,” he said. “(Defenders) don’t even make the contact with their head, and their intent is not to hit the other guy’s head, but they come into the chest area and it slides up on the head. I just don’t know how you take that out of football.”
One thing Johnson was confident wouldn’t happen this season is offensive players putting themselves in harm’s way in an attempt to get a defender thrown from the game.
“What’s going to happen is with the speed of these guys and some of the things they’re doing they cannot control their body at certain times to move it six inches down or six inches over,” he said.
Johnson just hopes given the plethora of television cameras at every game and the ability to look at replays of every single play, unwarranted ejections will get overturned — especially on hits that are borderline.
“To me you can tell when someone is trying to go to the head or not,” Johnson said. “You can see them sometimes. The DBs (defensive backs), they leave their feet on a guy coming across on a crossing route or something of that nature. But when two guys are running and both of them drop their center of gravity and their heads happen to hit and neither one of them stuck their head in there intentionally — they just were on the same plane — I think we’re getting in an area there where I don’t know how you’re going to avoid that kind of thing.”
And even in an era where most rule changes benefit offenses — which, in turn lead to more points being scored in every game — Johnson didn’t believe the increased emphasis on targeting was done to hinder his unit.
“If you had 10 of these called the next year,” he said. “I’d probably say about six or seven of them are going to be on a defensive player.”