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James Franklin: College Football Needs ‘Discussions’ About Targeting, Safety

We’re only one week into the college football season, but the targeting rule is already a hot topic.

In just the first half of Monday night’s Louisville-Ole Miss game, four players were penalized and ejected for targeting. Folks all over social media, including College GameDay’s David Pollack, were quick to call for rule changes.

Penn State didn’t escape the weekend without a targeting fiasco, either, as linebacker Ellis Brooks was disqualified in the third quarter of Saturday’s game against Wisconsin. He’ll miss the first half against Ball State as well. Head coach James Franklin addressed the call and other player safety issues during his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“I get it. If I was wearing the officials’ hat and not being biased, as the Penn State head coach, I probably would not have called it,” Franklin said. “But I get it…protecting the student-athletes and the game.

“There is going to need to be, probably at the end of the season, a discussion where we get coaches and officials and the [American Football Coaches Association] involved and really just sit down and talk it all through, with the doctors as well, and make some decisions,” he added.

According to the 2019 NCAA rules, targeting is called when “a player takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.” This can either be by making “forcible contact with the crown of the helmet” or “making forcible contact to the head or neck of a defenseless player.”

You can watch Brooks’ play below and make your own judgment.

The targeting rule draws a fine line between protecting players, especially from head injuries, and letting guys just play defense. NCAA rules for both targeting and tackling at practice have made it difficult to teach tackling.

Franklin said Penn State needs to do a better job at focusing on wrap-tackling, which would lower the risk of targeting being called. When “big-hit” plays like Brooks’ happen, it’s hard for the officials to tell if it’s targeting or just a hard, clean hit. Franklin believes he was just “throwing a shoulder,” which naturally causes the head to turn.

“It sucked. I know they’re just trying to keep us all safe out here, but at the same time, we’ve got to play defense,” Brooks said after Saturday’s game. “After I hit him, it was 4th & 3. I just let him take me back, it was going to be a first down.”

Targeting wasn’t the only player safety issue that came up following the Wisconsin game. Special teamer AJ Lytton was called for two kick catch interference penalties, one of which was picked up. The Badgers’ punt returner didn’t call a fair catch on both punts, which prompted Lytton to deliver big hits as soon as the ball hit his hands.

With both Lytton and Brooks’ penalties, it’s often a bang-bang play. In real-time, it’s hard to see who did what first or what body part is making contact first. For targeting, it’s even harder to judge since the head, which you legally cannot initiate contact with, is obviously attached to the top of the shoulders, which you can legally initiate contact with.

Plays like this typically result in the defender being called for a penalty, when oftentimes the offensive player is actually putting himself in the position to get hurt. Franklin said he discussed some of these offensive-minded rules with the team last week.

“I would make the argument that if you want the protection, then you should call for the fair
catch,” Franklin said. “Obviously, there is a fine line to that because you don’t want to put the player at risk, but they have a responsibility to protect themselves as well with the fair catch.”

While Lytton did cost the team 15 yards on his penalty, Penn State’s staff took no issue with his play. The cornerback executed the tackle the way the Nittany Lions practice it, which is to fire away as soon as the returner’s hands go up.

Defenders are put in tough positions like this throughout most games. Deciding how to tackle an opposing player is a split-second decision. One slight misjudgment and you cost your team 15 yards and get sent to the locker room.

After so many targeting calls in week one, this will surely be an ongoing discussion as the season progresses. The point Franklin brings up about how penalties are called on the offensive side of the ball vs. the defensive side of the ball is interesting, as there is undoubtedly incongruity. It seems like we’re reaching a boiling point with the targeting rule, which is now eight years old.

“You see offensive guys lowering their helmets, and I have yet to see that call. So, it’s interesting. I’m not criticizing. I’m not arguing,” Franklin said. “It’s a challenging thing right now for our game, and I think there is going to have to be continued discussions about it. I hope that’s fair.”

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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