NCAA FOOTBALL: MAR 06 Nebraska Spring Practice

New targeting rule tough to teach

There was a surprise waiting for defensive backs coach Terry Joesph and the rest of Nebraska’s coaching staff when it sat down this offseason to watch the “teach tape” from the NCAA on the new targeting rule. There was a Nebraska player on there, clearly illustrating what, in the NCAA’s estimation, would elicit an automatic ejection in 2013. One of 99 plays the NCAA identified as ejection-worthy in 2012.

It wasn’t Kenny Bell’s hit from the Big Ten championship game. It was Josh Mitchell against Michigan, defending an out route. An incomplete out route with very little contact.

“Cover 2, the backup quarterback comes in, he throws the out out there in Cover 2 and Josh misses the guy,” Joseph said. “The guy throws the flag, gives him 15 yards, and Josh didn’t even hit the guy.”

The penalty happened in the third quarter on a third-and-nine play. It was a strange enough call for the coaches then that, in addition to the 15-yard targeting penalty, the bench also got flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Michigan went from fourth-and-nine at its own 22-yard line to first-and-10 at Nebraska’s 48. The drive culminated in a Wolverines field goal to pull them within a touchdown at 16-9.

This year, the penalty is even more severe and that’s a challenge for college football coaches across the country as they try to teach a rule that they haven’t actually seen in action yet.

“I think it concerns everybody, but it’s not something you can worry about,” coach Bo Pelini said at Big Ten media days. “You try to educate your guys (but) the game is the game. The thing that worries me is the application of it, and I’ve stopped worrying about things like that, stuff you can’t control. That’s something we’re not going to be able to control. You educate your guys and you have understand, it’s going to happen.”

But it’s particularly hard when you’re in charge of coaching the secondary, the home of the high-velocity, highlight-reel hits this penalty is supposed to eliminate.

“We’ve been practicing four days and we’ve talked about it three times in meetings because it’s a big deal to lose a key guy, maybe (for) the whole game, depending on when it happens,” Joseph said. “It’s a hard deal for a defensive back because you don’t know how a receiver’s going to react when he catches the ball. We will go lower and we’re going more under the shoulder pads.”

Nebraska, even when the team is in full pads, typically doesn’t take players to the ground during practice so Joseph has been careful to point out situations where his defensive backs may have been over the subjective line without actually being able to say a player would’ve been flagged.

“The tough thing is that you don’t want to take the aggressiveness out of your players,” Joseph said. “You kind of coach it on the fly and when you get a teachable situation in practice or on film you kind of talk them through it. They’ve got to know the ramifications of it. It’s not just 15-yards, it’s an ejection.”

Expect the rule to be a major topic of conversation in September as teams finally get a look at how the rule will be called. Until then, the Huskers’ staff is doing what it can with the same definition and teach tape as everyone else — coaching new technique, hoping for the best once the season rolls around, and, for Joseph at least, dealing with the plain reality of the rule.

“Unfortunately there’s probably, throughout college football, going to be some good players ejected on some gray-area hits.”