Area coaches, players and officials discuss targeting rule
NATCHEZ — Lance Reed’s playing days at Natchez High School involved dishing out a lot of big hits, the kind that end up generating “ohs” from the crowd.
But Reed admitted the game he played growing up is much different now, and rules designed to protect players, like the targeting rule generating a lot of discussion in college football, are changing the game.
“In my day, it was a glorified task to be able to hit a guy without him looking and getting the big hit and seeing him walk off groggy,” Reed said. “That was a big deal, but these days we’re smarter, and it’s about safety. Players are getting seriously injured, and that’s something you just can’t have.”
The targeting rule in college football has been the center of some controversy this season. According to Rule 9, Section 1, Article 4 of the NCAA Rule Book, “No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.”
The rule constitutes a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down, as well as an automatic ejection of the offending player. However, replay officials can overturn the ejection if they determine it wasn’t a foul — though the 15-yard penalty still stands.
Some coaches, like Reed, believe the targeting issue will eventually trickle down to the high school level in the next few years.
“I think it will be something similar to what colleges are doing,” Reed said. “We kind of model what they do, and I think we’ll follow suit.”
Trinity Episcopal head football coach Josh Loy said he also expects some kind of targeting rule to be implemented at the high school level in the not-too-distant future, adding it wouldn’t be easy to teach his defensive players to adjust to such a rule.
“It’s so hard now, because everybody is running the spread, everybody is throwing the ball and nobody is a great tackling team anymore,” Loy said. “When this penalty comes down, I have a feeling it’s going to make playing defense pretty difficult.”
Loy also said he’s especially leery of an automatic ejection that could possibly come along with any potential targeting rule, since high school officials don’t have the benefit of instant replay.
“It would make football at the high school level very challenging, especially for a small school like us, where our numbers are down,” Loy said. “You get a kid ejected on a penalty like that, it puts us at a major disadvantage.”
Vidalia High School head coach Gary Parnham Jr. said he believes the targeting rule is a good rule to have, though some college referees may be too quick to throw the flag. Like Reed and Loy, he expects a targeting rule to be adopted at the high school level, and he’s also concerned about any potential ejections that could result.
“Most of the incidences I’ve seen in college football hadn’t really been where a kid has actually gone after another kid to hurt him — he’s just going to make a play,” Parnham said. “We teach aggression in this game, and you’re taking a lot of aggression out of the game by doing something like that.”
When it comes to high school football, Parnham said he doesn’t believe targeting is a major issue.
“I haven’t seen it in my years of being in high school,” Parnham said. “Now, I’ve seen some hard hits and some hard licks. I’ve seen some kids launch themselves at other kids, and I’ve seen some helmet-to-helmet contact. I don’t necessarily think it’s on purpose, I just think it’s in the aspect of playing football.”
Reed also said targeting isn’t a big issue in high school, though he does think it could possibly become more of an issue down the road.
“I don’t see a ton of it, but I think the flag can be throw in certain cases,” Reed said. “Officials are kind of the (advocate) of defenseless players. It’s not as widespread in high school, but it’s getting there.”
Jimmy Fuqua, a referee for 20 years with the MAIS, said the association doesn’t have a so-called “targeting” rule but is against leading with the helmet, which is a personal foul.
“If a defender goes in to lead with his head, or a runner leads with his head, it’s a foul,” Fuqua said.
Fuqua said he expects — and would welcome — a targeting rule in the MAIS, since it would help prevent head and neck injuries. He said he’s happy with what has been implemented at higher levels.
“It’s cleaned up the college and pro game,” Fuqua said. “I think within two to three years, it’ll be a penalty for any kind of head contact.”
Fuqua said he’s also hoping it will constitute an automatic ejection, though he understands the concern about not having instant replay to overturn such an ejection.
“I can look and see when a guy is going in with the intent to lead with the helmet, and any seasoned official should be able to spot that,” Fuqua said. “The game has speed, but it’s not anywhere near the speed of the college and pros.”
Merriel McCelleis, a local official with the MHSAA, said like the MAIS, the association doesn’t have a targeting rule, but the National Federation of State High School Associations made leading with the helmet a point of emphasis. Like the MAIS, helmet-to-helmet contact is outlawed.
“You’re supposed to be using your shoulder pads as the primary point of attack,” McCelleis said. “There are certain areas you can’t hit anyone — you can’t go above the shoulders, as far as high school is concerned, and you cannot use the helmet as the focal point of an attack, offensively or defensively. We have the spearing rule (leading with the crown of the helmet), and that’s an ejectable offense.”
McCelleis said he is unsure what direction the federation will go as far as asking state associations to implement a targeting rule.
“I would say that the word ‘targeting’ probably won’t be used,” McCelleis said. “Anything the national federation does will be for the safety of the players.”
Unlike Fuqua, McCelleis said he thinks college football has gone a bit too far with the targeting rule — though he’d rather go too far in the case of player safety than not go far enough.
“Football is a dangerous sport,” McCelleis said. “You can’t police it all. If you’re in the game, you can get hurt, but technique can go a long way in preventing injury. This isn’t 1950, you can’t just hurt anybody. Better to go overboard in protection than the other way around.”
Buddy Gringas, an official with the LHSAA, said helmet-to-helmet contact is against the rules, just as it is in the Mississippi associations. He doesn’t believe the LHSAA will adopt a targeting rule similar to what is being done in college.
“I don’t see it going as far as, if you target someone, we’ll penalize and disqualify you,” Gringas said. “I don’t think it’s a big issue (in high school). College kids are bigger, faster, stronger and more athletic, so they’re able to do things like that.”
Senior Trinity linebacker Stewart Mallory said he enjoys making hard hits, and had a targeting rule been in effect during his playing career, it likely would have hampered his style of play on defense.
“People would play softer,” Mallory said. “I don’t think they would be as aggressive anymore. I love hitting, so I’d hate it. I would not want that rule at all.”
Teammate Dré McCoy said as a receiver, however, he would be OK with a targeting rule.
“I think it’s a fair rule,” McCoy said. “People shouldn’t target a certain part of your body. That can easily cost you your entire game. Everyone (playing) loves the game of football and wants to keep playing.
“All the real hitting actually starts in high school, so I’d be perfectly fine if high school (adopts) that rule.”
McCoy said his approach to playing receiver is to hope officials have his safety in mind.
“If I do happen to get targeted, I hope I don’t get hurt, and I hope that someone is there to catch (the foul),” McCoy said. “
Natchez High School senior safety Lee Jackson said he thinks the targeting rule doesn’t fit with what football is supposed to be about.
“Football is a physical sport, and you’re supposed to hit people, so that’s kind of crazy,” Jackson said. “If you’re kind of holding back, you’re probably not going to play at a higher level, so it’ll make it easier for receivers to have their way on the field.”
As a defensive player, Jackson said he likes to hit, but he never tries to take it too far.
“I don’t try to be dirty and just hit someone really hard,” Jackson said. “I don’t want to send anyone to the hospital or anything.”