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COLUMBUS — Ask Christian Bryant for his thoughts on the new NCAA rule legislating dangerous hits, and the Ohio State safety smiles.
The question is a compliment.
Bone-rattling takedowns? That’s him. Bryant wants any opponent who crosses his turf to wonder first how a 5-foot-10, 190-pound man could pack such a devastating wallop, and for their second thought to be, well, second thoughts.
“If you make a hard tackle, [the opponent] will be kind of tentative to run the ball as hard as they were before,” he said. “It’s defeating the man’s will.”
Yet Bryant knows there is a line — even if players, coaches, and maybe even officials are not sure where to draw it.
Beginning this year, players flagged for targeting or hitting defenseless players above the shoulders will be booted from the game and, in many cases, subject to further penalty.
It is the latest step to secure the future of a sport hurtling toward a crossroads as concerns mount on the long-term effects of head injuries, though perhaps no new measure is more open to interpretation and scrutiny.
In theory, coaches agree with the rule. They believe players intentionally taking aim at an opponent’s head or neck has no place in the sport, and the amped-up punishment will be a deterrent.
While targeting was a 15-yard penalty in past years, teams will now be docked both the yardage and the player. Those ejected in the second half will also be suspended for the first half of the next game. (All targeting calls will be reviewed by video replay, and the ejection — not the 15-yard penalty — can be reversed.)
“I’m cautiously a fan of that rule,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “Because I don’t believe the game should be played with the top of your helmet.”
All well and good ... until a subjective rule leaves a team without its star player in a big game. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, chair of the NCAA Rules Committee, has said there were 99 targeting calls at the FBS level last year that would have led to an ejection under the new rule.
For many coaches, that may as well be 99 shades of gray. Doug Rhoads, coordinator of officials for the Atlantic Coast Conference, caused a stir last week when he told reporters South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney would now be ejected for the rattling hit he laid on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in January’s Outback Bowl — a collision named the play of the year by ESPN and complimented by Wolverines coach Brady Hoke.
Big Ten coordinator of officials Bill Carollo, in turn, said the hit was indeed clean.
“If they’re going to throw somebody out of the game for that Jadeveon Clowney hit, then we better find another sport,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. “I don’t know what you can tell a kid. I don't know."
So, will the men in stripes ever be on the same page? Per the NCAA rulebook, they will be on the lookout for four indicators of targeting plays: launching to hit an opponent’s head; a “crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack” the head; leading with the helmet, forearm, fist, or elbow to strike the head; and lowering the head to hit an opponent with the top of the helmet.
But how different officials view the same play is anyone’s guess.
“The scary thing to me is the application part of it,” Pelini said. “I don’t think it’s an easy thing to call. In my opinion it’s going a little bit overboard right now. Some things I’ve seen on TV and different examples that they’ve shown us, I haven’t quite agreed with some of the things they’ve talked about.
“I understand where it’s coming from. It’s about the safety of the players, and we’re all for that.”
Meyer said he plans to discuss the rule with his coaches and continue teaching players to tackle with their heads up. Bryant said he has always tried to play clean.
“I’m going to be more aware or more cautious on the rule because I’m not trying to get ejected from the game,” he said.
Still, there is one thing Bryant won’t change.
“This is not going to make me tentative,” he said. “At all.”