Defenses learning to cope in concussion prevention era

NEWPORT, R.I. – Houston linebacker Derrick Mathews likes hitting hard. He leads with his head when he tackles.

Nothing malicious about it, the junior said. He’s just a physical linebacker. He molded his game around a hard-hitting style of play that helped him earn All-Conference-USA honorable mention in 2012 with 126 tackles and 17 for a loss.

If you think defensive players adjusting to the new targeting rule will be easy, maybe Mathews’ case will change your mind.

When asked how many games from which Mathews would have been ejected last season if the new rules were in place – initiating contact above the shoulder of a defenseless player while leading with the crown of the helmet is an automatic ejection -- teammate Zach McMilllian quickly interjected.

“Probably all of them,” said McMillian, a UH cornerback.

Mathews agreed. So does his coach, Tony Levine, who says Mathews can remain physical while tackling with discipline. Levine says Mathews wasn't penalized once for excessive hitting last year, but the sensitivity of the new rule could catch up to him this year.

“When something’s an instinct, that’s how I approach when I tackle,” said Mathews, leaning his head forward to demonstrate. “It’s going to take awhile to change. That’s what I’ll work on in two-a-days.”  

There’s little doubt the college football changes designed to prevent concussions and preserve the long-term viability of the game are the correct ones. That doesn’t mean they are easy for defensive players to navigate, at least not yet.

Defenses are searching for a sensible blend of physicality and penalty-free tackling. Coaches promote safety but clearly aren’t pumped about the ejection rule that gives no mercy to defenders even if a hit is accidental or questionable. If an ejection call is overturned, a 15-yard penalty still stands.

Many coaches feel they had minimal influence on the current rules and believe the onus falls squarely on the officials.

“You’re not going to be 100 percent perfect. It’s not going to happen,” Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville said.

Complicating matters was ACC officiating czar Doug Rhoads saying last week South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney’s resounding hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl would likely have prompted an ejection.

Count the number of people calling Clowney’s hit egregious from January to mid-July. It won’t take long.

Not that defensive players deserve sympathy -- every team must make the same changes -- but sanitizing a violent game will be a challenge for players who a few years ago could avoid punishment as long as shots weren’t blatant.

Coaches say they’ve always taught safe defense, but more than ever programs are taking stock of how they tackle.

Ball State coach Pete Lembo said he reviewed the rule with his team on Tuesday, the players' report date. He's never done something like that on the first day.

Memphis coach Justin Fuente is implementing a rule in training camp that any Tigers defender who goes high with the crown of the helmet gets tossed from a scrimmage.

Paranoid defenders could start going low, Fuente said -- maybe too low.

“You could have some leg injuries as a result of players going overboard trying to stay out of that shoulder head area,” Fuente said.

As a result, Fuente will give his players a specific bodily window for tackling, from the mid-thigh to the mid-chest area.

Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley would rather vent.

“They are basically making us play flag football,” Easley said.

Maybe call it wrap football, Georgia Tech defensive end Jeremiah Attaochu says -- as in, just wrap up the offensive player and get him on the ground safely.

Coming off a 10-sack season, Attaochu wants to be the next Von Miller on the field. The only way to get that far is with precise, safe tackling -- or else he’ll spend more time watching from the locker room.

“You have to really think out there about how you tackle,” Attaochu said. “You have to wrap up instead of taking a clear shot.”

Coaches must find ways to simulate proper hitting since most programs have scaled back in practices to prevent injury.

Staff film sessions will be crucial for pointing out tackling angles and helmet placement to players.

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

Big, momentum-changing hits were once as normal to the game as the dive play or SEC coaches wearing windbreakers. Attaochu and Clemson linebacker Spencer Shuey both agree hits that once enlivened a sideline no longer belong in the game.

Players must find new motivation.

“Defensive players will have to be in better positions and take better angles,” Shuey said. “You can’t rely solely on athleticism to make tackles.”

Because of Penn State’s scholarship reductions stretching to 2018, Nittany Lions coach Bill O’Brien says his team hits once, maybe twice per week.

After 20 years of coaching in college and pros, O’Brien has come to one realization with safe tackling.

Desire is everything.

“You’re a good tackler because you want to be,” O’Brien said. “You can find a way to bring somebody to the ground properly if you really want to.”

Even some tackling purists seem torn on the Clowney hit and wonder, if his isn’t legal, what actually is?

Fox officiating analyst Mike Pereira says officials would have called an ejection on the Clowney hit maybe two times out of 10 in the flow of the game. This process could play out like the SEC’s suspension rulings on hits last year -- learn as you go on a case-by-case basis in an inexact science.

Perhaps the drastic changes today can help sustain the grassroots levels of football such as pee-wee ball.

College players and coaches are all for that. But today’s challenge is adjusting on the field without giving up extra yards because a player is thinking too much about which form of tackling is permissible.

“I just hope the new rule doesn’t affect wins and losses,” Tuberville said. “I know the players will be cognizant.”


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