ACC coaches concerned about ejections over targeting rule

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Dabo Swinney is stuck.

The Clemson coach supports player safety and doesn’t want his Tigers targeting defenseless players, but he’s anxious about the inevitable gray area that looms with the new NCAA rule prohibiting players from leading with the crown of their helmet.

He watched the ACC’s training videos shown to coaches, and several plays made him ask, "How is that going to be officiated."

This season, a player initiating contact above the shoulder of a defenseless player or leading with the crown of the helmet results in a 15-yard penalty and ejection from the game. A player ejected in the second half must miss the first half of the following game.

At least two ACC coaches asked about the rule at this week’s ACC Football Kickoff preferred the league review plays on Sunday, then suspend the player if the hit is egregious.

“From a coaching standpoint everybody is a little uncomfortable because you don’t know how to coach your guys,” Swinney said.

ACC officiating coordinator Doug Rhoads on Monday explained an ejection is subject to review and can be overturned with indisputable evidence.

ACC coaches gave input to the American Football Coaches Association, but really they have no choice but to adapt to the new rules. Last season, a league office had the discretion to review the video of a hit after the game and suspend a player for the next game if it saw fit.

Officials will emphasize player safety, and the long-term health of the game depends in part on following hard-line rules.

Coaches are fine with that but are concerned with players getting wrongfully ejected when officials have limited time to review a play and make a call on the field.

As Miami’s Al Golden says, there’s no reset button on this.

“You need time to really look at the intent of what the kid did, the gravity of it, all those things to me should be part of whether or not it was just accidental or clearly was targeted,” Golden said. “I would be much more comfortable leaving it up to the conferences. Penalize the kid as you see it on game day, then leave it up to the conference to go back and review it.”

You could argue intent is irrelevant if safety is only issue, but coaches point to other factors, such as a player making a textbook tackle when an offensive player “lowers his center of gravity at the last second and there’s incidental contact, and now you’re getting thrown out,” Swinney said.

Maryland’s Randy Edsall says officials do a solid job deciphering a fast game and believes most above-the-shoulder calls will be easy to make.

But a player getting ejected for helmet-crown shots requires adjustments for coaches during practice.

“That comes back to making sure we as coaches do the proper job of teaching the fundamentals and proper technique for tackling,” Edsall said.

Edsall agrees with Golden: He doesn’t want to see officials admitting on a Sunday that a player shouldn’t have been ejected the day before.

“You could be in the first 10 plays of the game and lose a guy like that,” Edsall said. “As a coach, you might have to travel an extra guy at a defensive position than you did the year before. I am concerned about somebody getting ejected wrongfully."

When asked if defenses can still maximize their potential with stringent player-safety rules, Syracuse coach Scott Shafer points to a picture of a leatherhead helmet in the hallway of the Grandover Resort.

His message: The game is always changing.

“They are going to have to,” said Shafer of defenses. “That’s where the game is.”

Coaches will spend every practice walking the line between teaching fundamental tackling and promoting physical play.

Even the best teaching might not eliminate questionable calls where the targeting rule applies.

“It’s those fringe plays that can go either way,” Swinney said.

Quote of note: No ACC coach on Monday came out stronger than Maryland’s Randy Edsall, who questioned -- no, body-slammed -- the NCAA's side (along with EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Company) in the lawsuit filed by Ed O’Bannon over whether collegiate athletes should make money off their likenesses.

Edsall said he’d “most definitely” join the six plaintiffs in the case were he a player in today’s game.

"Kids are committed to institutions, not to the NCAA,” Edsall said. “And the NCAA is using their likeness to make money. And that money isn't going back to these kids. … I'm just concerned about where the game is headed because I think this is the greatest team sport of them all, and the things I see that are happening are concerning as a coach.”

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