- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Florida defensive back Jaylen Watkins knew it was coming. He didn't know when, but the senior sensed that, considering how aggressively he and his teammates in Florida's secondary play, one of them would be subject to the new targeting penalty. It was bound to happen in a high-collision sport with such a physical unit.
"We knew it would be one of us," Watkins said. "We just didn't know which one it was [going to be.]"
Three games in, Watkins' premonition materialized, as sophomore safety Brian Poole was flagged and ejected for targeting after he hit Tennessee tight end Brendan Downs high while Downs was in a defenseless position with 13:41 remaining in Florida's eventual 31-17 win over the Vols.
The ejection triggered bellowing boos from the fans filling Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and drew ire from Florida coach Will Muschamp, who has been critical of the new ejection rule since its inception.
"I don't have any problem with the call. I've got a problem with the rule," Muschamp said. "Brian Poole was not trying to flagrantly hurt anyone. It's a bang-bang play. He's trying to go up, the ball's high, he's going in high. It's a bang-bang play."
The rule states that players who target and hit defenseless opponents above the shoulders will be ejected and a 15-yard penalty will be assessed. If the foul occurs in the first half of a game, the player is ejected for the remainder of that game. If it happens in the second half or overtime, the player is ejected and must sit during the first half of the next game.
The fouls are reviewable through video replay, meaning ejections can be overturned, but the penalties still stand.
To Muschamp, targeting plays should be reviewed by conference commissioners and league officials after games to determine whether the hit was malicious. Then a suspension can be given.
The general consensus from coaches is that the penalty is fine, but the ejections and penalties for overturned ejections are issues.
"I think it's a good rule," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "Those guys who spear and lead with the crown of their helmet, they need to be thrown out of the game. There's no question about that.
"It's a good rule, and hopefully the referees will apply it correctly all the time because it's a pretty severe penalty for the hit."
NCAA coordinator of officials Rogers Redding understands criticism of the new ejection rule, but said that keeping the 15-yard penalty after an overturned ejection was implemented to teach players to change their behavior with hits and stay away from making contact with opponents' heads and necks.
"We're only five weeks into the season," Redding said. "We need to let the entire season play out and see how it works and see what the trends are. I know it's a concern to get a player thrown out of a game, but I gotta tell you, getting a player thrown out of a game is small potatoes compared to the injuries that are occurring and the concussions that this kind of action can generate. We've got to get this kind of play out of the game.
"We've got to change the game; that's just the bottom line."
While coaches have had mixed reactions regarding how aggressively defensive players will play because of the rule, the actual guys delivering those hits are becoming more cautious.
Georgia safety Tray Matthews said he was hesitant to lead with his shoulder at times against LSU players on Saturday. Matthews was warned by referees earlier in the game, and it caused defenders to hesitate on high throws and ones over the middle of the field, which sometimes resulted in first downs for LSU.
"I felt myself going for that big hit, but I was like, 'Dang, I can't,' " Matthews said. "The referee had already warned me earlier, so that's why I didn't even want to hit him. That's part of the process of being able to make a play or two on third down."
Overturned ejections also have an effect on players. Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is probably the most high-profile player to be subjected to the targeting rule. He was flagged in Week 3 for colliding with Texas A&M receiver Derel Walker on a deep throw. Clinton-Dix appeared to be trying to make the interception and even pulled up late to soften the blow with his shoulder. The ejection was rescinded, but Clinton-Dix said the penalty made him more heedful of his play when he returned.
"It kind of limits how we play, but at the same time you can't go out there half-stepping," he said. "You have to let the refs make that call."
For Texas A&M cornerback Deshazor Everett, who was ejected for targeting in the second half of A&M's opening win against Rice, it's not about changing how you play, it's about being smarter about how you tackle and trying to aim for the sternum, while using your arms to wrap instead of trying to inflict a big, high hit.
"I should have been smarter in the situation," Everett said. "I saw him reaching for the ball, but I saw it passing by and I still took a shot at him. As a player, when you're in the game, you're thinking, 'I've got to make this tackle.'"
And there's worry that those tackles will only go lower, causing more knee, leg and ankle injuries.
Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines, who saw fellow Mizzou corner Randy Ponder be ejected for targeting in the first quarter of Saturday's win over Arkansas State, said he's acclimating his mind and body to hitting below the shoulders, but he sometimes hits too low in order to avoid a flag.
"I find myself going low on guys a lot; not intentionally trying to hurt them, but also not trying to get a penalty and get ejected from a football game," Gaines said.
Mizzou wide receiver L'Damian Washington said he worries that defensive players will start to aim for opponents' legs for fear of ejection. Washington said he understands the long-term effects hits to the head can have, but he also thinks debilitating leg injuries should be taken into account.
"I honestly don't like the rule, and I'm an offensive player," he said.
"I would rather have a slight concussion than tear my ACL. I hope it's a one-and-done-type rule."
Targeting itself is nothing new to the sport, and coaches seem to agree that flagging players for malicious hits to the head is essential for player safety.
Stanford coach David Shaw watched Cardinal safety Ed Reynolds get ejected against Arizona State for targeting, but said the penalty is a "necessity" and believes it should be applied to all levels of football.
"You need that ultimate deterrent, and you have to apply it when it shows up," Shaw said.
But the new ejection rule has left some coaches baffled.
With a little less than 30 seconds remaining in the first quarter of Oklahoma's opening win over Tulsa, safety Gabe Lynn was flagged for targeting when he hit running back Trey Watts high with his shoulder on a pass toward the middle of the end zone on third-and-10 from OU's 13-yard line.
Lynn's ejection was overturned, but the penalty stood, giving Tulsa a first down. Two plays later, Tulsa scored a touchdown to cut OU's lead to 10-7.
"You would like to see the penalty part of that maybe done away with when you see that it's a perfectly clean hit," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
"In the end you would think that if you're going to review it and you see that it's a clean play you'd think you would throw the flag away too, but that's just how it is right now."
On Saturday, Oklahoma benefited from the new rule when Notre Dame junior linebacker Ben Councell was ejected in the fourth quarter after making helmet-to-helmet contact with Sooners running back Brennan Clay. Councell's hit warranted a penalty, but Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly didn't think Councell had enough time to position himself any differently.
"In my estimation, unavoidable," Kelly said of Councell's hit. "Just the game of football is so fast. He's cutting across, trying to make a play and absolutely, in my opinion, unavoidable.
"It was a bang-bang play, and the rule is clearly an intent. And there was no intent; he was trying to make a play on the ball."
Kelly said he planned to talk to ACC officials about the hit and suspension.
The future of the rule is unknown, but the targeting penalty likely isn't going anywhere.
There's no question that the ejection serves a strong purpose. If the sport is going to get the message across that malicious hits to the head will no longer be tolerated, players have to fear dire consequences.
At Big Ten media days this summer, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald proposed a novel change to the rule. Instead of an immediate ejection, Fitzgerald said refs should present players with a warning (like a yellow card in soccer) for the first offense and an ejection (equivalent to a red card) for the second.
Vanderbilt defensive coordinator Bob Shoop likes Fitzgerald's idea and would even be in favor of a quarter-long or "10-minute" suspension during games for targeting instead of an outright ejection.
Most coaches want the dangerous hits to the head taken out of the game, but want the ejection rule amended. It's giving referees too much power with so little time to think.
"If we're going upstairs, let's be fair to the teams, too," Texas coach Mack Brown said.
"Let's take it back. Let's make it fair and do what's right. To me that makes so much sense, it's too simple."
1dKevin Stone, ESPN.com