Bill Carollo was far from the most famous speaker at the Big Ten’s annual Football Media Days last week, but he did have a piece of information that could resonate throughout the season.
“We've made a couple changes in targeting that are significant,” the conference’s coordinator of officials said, referring to a controversial rule that regulates high hits and has included an automatic ejection since 2013.
In the rulebook, targeting is still defined as “a player taking aim at an opponent for the purposes of attacking with forcible contact with the crown of the helmet” or “a player taking aim at a defenseless opponent for the purposes of attacking with forcible contact to the head or neck area.”
(The latter accounts for the majority of flags that are thrown.)
The same “indicators” are still in place, including when a defender lowers his head or launches in an upward motion at a ball-carrier.
However, Carollo expects targeting calls to be reduced by about 10 percent this season because of a change to the review process that is a mandatory part of every targeting call.
“All elements of targeting have to be confirmed,” Carollo said.
What does that mean?
The replay official is less likely to be stuck with an imperfect call that isn’t obviously correct.
“Last year if we weren't sure, the play would stand, and that player would be disqualified,” Carollo explained. “This year, all elements have to be confirmed. If not, the player stays in the game. That might be about 10 percent of plays last year.
“Based on the numbers last year, we'll have 10 percent possibly less targeting calls this year.”
The number of plays the change might affect might be small, but the impact could be large given the severity of the consequences for breaking the targeting rule.
“Here is the idea behind it and the thinking and the rationale: We want to get this play correct,” Carollo said. “It's a very important play as far as health and safety, but it's also the penalty is our largest penalty, so we want to make sure that we get that correct, and if we aren't sure, the player will stay in the game.”
That should be good news for players, who in large part have adjusted aiming points and how they hit but can still be caught up in what is a fairly wide net that defines targeting, and for fans who often become frustrated when a player is ejected without clear evidence a rule was broken.
It is also not the only change.
While targeting fouls could be less common in 2019, they also have the potential to cost repeat offenders even more playing time than in the past.
“If a player commits three targeting fouls in one season — we call this a progressive penalty — he’ll be disqualified for that game when he commits his third targeting call, but he also will sit out one full additional game,” Carollo said. “It's a pretty heavy penalty. So we're going to be working with the teams and with the players, especially after they get the first one, and we're going to give them warnings, but if they end up with a third targeting penalty it will have to be a progressive penalty and one full game from there.”
Aside from the alterations to administration of targeting fouls, Carollo named four more changes to the rules for the upcoming season:
1. Two-man wedges are no longer allowed on kickoff returns.
After being reduced to two players, wedges are now entirely illegal.
“About four or five years ago we got rid of the three-man wedge, and our data tells us, and we've collaborated with the NFL as well as with the FBS games, that two-man, three-man wedges are very, very dangerous,” Carollo said. “Number one, kickoffs, when we have those wedge plays, are our most dangerous play as far as injuries, and we get a lot of concussions trying to break up that two-man wedge. So when two players intentionally come together to form a wedge it'll be a 15-yard penalty for an illegal wedge block.
“The only exception to that rule is if we have an obvious onside kick, the kickoff goes out of bounds, there's a fair catch involved on the kickoff, or if the ball goes in the end zone it will be a touchback.”
2. Defensive clipping is now the same as offensive clipping.
“Blocking below the waist, we've made a lot of changes in the last 10 years,” Carollo said. “This is a minor change, but we want to align (the fouls). Now (the defense) low blocks, mirror exactly what the low blocks are for the (offense). So that's a good change.”
3. Forceful blind-side blocks are now entirely illegal.
Say goodbye to plays in which a player is running one way and blown up by someone he didn’t see coming from the other direction.
“You cannot, with force, attack an opponent and put a block on that player in open space,” Carollo said. “That will be considered a blind-side block, a 15-yard penalty, and that's a new rule this year. So you can't really de-cleat people. A lot of times you see it on kickoffs, change of possessions, interceptions, punt returns. You have to make sure that player sees you, and he can defend himself, otherwise it will be a penalty.”
Blocking a “defenseless player” is still allowed as long as the blocker does not use excessive force.
This means essentially getting in the way of a pursuing player is fine, but delivering a hard hit on him is not.
4. Overtime will change after four overtimes.
Beginning with the fifth overtime in a game, teams will get the ball at the 3-yard line with one chance to score a two-point conversion rather than starting a regular four-down possession from the 25.
This is an attempt to avoid exposing players to excessively long games.
“We don't want the game to end in a tie, but we want the game to keep moving, and we want it to end once we get to that point,” Carollo explained.
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