New rule: Be smart on defense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When last we encountered Karl Joseph, he was almost dizzy from a day of being questioned in Dallas on the topic of targeting.
It was the hot topic at the Big 12 media days in late July and Joseph, West Virginia's big-hitting sophomore safety, was, well, being targeted. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know what he thought of the new rules and their potential impact on the way he plays the game.
Joseph was at a loss for answers, mainly because he had little idea what his inquisitors were talking about.
"It's really unfair to Karl to be asked these questions,'' his coach, Dana Holgorsen, said at those same meetings. "He doesn't know what you're talking about.''
Indeed, Joseph had not yet been privy to any sort of thorough explanation of the targeting rules, which in essence open a player to possible ejection for dangerous hits. In general, that means using the head as a weapon, aiming for the head of a ball carrier or receiver or generally targeting a defenseless player. Although subject to instant-replay review, a player can be ejected in the first half for the remainder of a game or in the second half for the rest of that game and the first half of the next.
Well, in the four weeks since then, Joseph has been schooled. He now knows what all players know about the rule, which is basically that it is going to be a judgment call on the part of officials. He's been shown what is and isn't legal and has realized, like everyone, that the fine line between the two is open to a lot of interpretation.
The bottom line, though, is that he doesn't think it will change his game much at all.
"I understand it a little bit more. Coach Holgorsen had some Big 12 refs come in and explain it a little bit to us,'' Joseph said. "I don't think it will affect me like people think. It's just about being smarter when the receiver is defenseless.''
Of course, no defender thinks it will affect him, and that might be a naïve approach to take.
"Right now I think it's an issue for every defensive player in college football,'' WVU safeties coach Tony Gibson said.
Indeed, if the weight of making certain that Joseph's hits are clean is on anyone other than himself, it is on Gibson and the rest of West Virginia's defensive coaches. It's not that they have to teach things differently, but they do have to add at least another element to the formula, the one that warns of what could get a player ejected.
"What defensive coaches around the country are teaching is fly to the ball and be physical when you tackle,'' Gibson said. "It's going to happen at some point to somebody that they're going to lose a great player just because they're big hitters. What we have to do as coaches is be smart and teach guys how to tackle through the thigh [pads] and through the chest and those kinds of things.
"But there's going to be collisions in football, especially in the Big 12 with as much throwing as there is.''
That's what is sometimes lost in a conversation about styles of football. For so long, playing pass offense and pass defense were seen as somehow anti-physical compared to head-bashing run games and fearsome front sevens. But where the new targeting rules are concerned, passing offenses and the defenses that try to stop them are, well, the targets.
It's the big hits in the secondary - not in the trenches - that are the issue.
As a precaution and a teaching tool, Holgorsen last month put together a highlight tape of sorts of Joseph's biggest hits in the secondary. He sent it to the Big 12 and had it critiqued by the league's head of officials, Walt Anderson. Then he passed along the results to Joseph.
"He actually talked to me about it and told me that most of my hits were clean last year because none of the ball-carriers were defenseless,'' Joseph said. "He said some of them might have been close, but not really.''
It only takes one, though, and who knows when that one could happen in a split second. Joseph admits that it's just a matter of being smart.
"The only difference is when the receiver is defenseless. That's the only real change I see,'' Joseph said. "Everything else is still the same. They're still allowing us to play football and be aggressive. But when the receiver is defenseless and in the air, you just have to lower your target zone.''
In other words, he doesn't worry about it, which is half the battle.
"The one thing I did tell me guys is I don't want them playing cautious because then you play scared,'' Gibson said. "Then you have missed opportunities and missed tackles.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.