NCAA's new helmet-to-helmet rule will force college football players to relearn how to tackle

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

It is officially time to relearn tackling in college football.

Many programs already have been in the process, trying to break the habit of defensive backs and pass rushers of going high on unprotected receivers and quarterbacks. But now there is new urgency to avoid helmet-to-helmet contact.

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Jadeveon Clowney and other college players now risk ejection for helmet-to-helmet hits. (USA Today Sports)

The NCAA forced the issue this week by recommending a rule that will eject anyone who is flagged for targeting a defenseless player.

"The tool we have is playing time," said Rogers Redding, secretary-editor of the NCAA football rules committee and national coordinator of officials. "The committee said we've got to get this play out of the game."

It is a bold move by the committee because it will invite backlash – not now, but in the fall. The first time a star player gets the boot for a helmet-to-helmet hit, everyone will lose their minds.

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Can you imagine the outcry if South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney gets ejected for blasting a quarterback in the facemask?

The NCAA presumably can, yet it was willing to take this step anyway. Good for the association. That signals a legitimate concern about player safety – and even if that concern is being externally driven by forces outside of organized football, at least it exists.

"We're doing this because it's the right thing to do," Redding said. "The game is under attack. There's a lot of concern, legitimately, about concussions."

It's time. After watching what has happened to receivers like Austin Collie and quarterbacks like Steve Young, and countless others, there is no longer the latitude to simply shrug off head injuries as an unfortunate byproduct of the sport.

If the president says he'd think twice about letting his kids play football, he's not alone. If the sport wants to retain the trust of parents and the participation of their children, it has to reform. And part of that is a strong deterrent to kill shots.

The plays that once permeated highlight reels have become illegal, and are now ejectable. But it will take a strong and secure officiating crew to enforce that rule.

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Ejections will be subject to booth review. The replay official cannot call a personal foul that wasn't called on the field, but can uphold or overturn one.

That's good, because the refs on the field will need the backup. Most helmet-to-helmet calls are bang-bang plays, and subject to interpretation. Did the receiver duck into the contact? Was the quarterback giving himself up or diving and creating the collision?

Still, the likelihood of an overturned call is slim, according to Ty Halpin, NCAA liaison to officials. He doesn't see replay becoming more invasive because of this implementation.

"Ninety-nine percent of the hits, they're no question going to stay with ejection," Halpin said.

Still, this is not as clear-cut as ruling whether a runner's knee was down short of the goal line. What I saw last year was a wide discrepancy in how the rule was applied and enforced, which led to energetic fan bickering. (Granted, that's the case with just about any personal-foul flag.)

Redding pointed out that there were only 99 targeting personal fouls called all of last season in FBS games. That's not as many as you'd think.

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The question is how many went uncalled that should have been called. And whether that number of no-calls will increase now if officials are leery of throwing a flag that leads to an instant ejection.

But gambling that blows to the head will go uncalled is bad coaching. Expect coaches nationwide to spend additional time this spring and in August getting players to relearn how to tackle.

"We've got to get the players simply not to go high," Redding said. "If they do, they run the risk of getting thrown out of the game."

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