SAN ANTONIO — Head coaches at college football's highest level are saying it's time for the targeting penalty to change.
On the final day of the annual American Football Coaches Association convention, a large group of head coaches from the Football Bowl Subdivision met Wednesday morning at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, and they agreed that the targeting penalty should move toward a model that is less harsh on players who commit the penalty without malicious intent.
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AFCA executive director Todd Berry said the consensus in the room was that the targeting penalty should split into two categories:
- Targeting 1: A less severe penalty for a non-malicious, incidental violation of the targeting rule, which could include a 15-yard penalty
- Targeting 2: A more severe penalty for a malicious violation of the targeting rule, which could include one-game suspensions and even multiple-game suspensions for repeat offenders
Under the current rule, players who are flagged for targeting are ejected for two halves of a football game, and their team receives a 15-yard penalty.
The rule, which prohibits "forcible contact against an opponent with the crown of his helmet," and targeting "the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent," has been the subject of debate since it was adopted by the NCAA in 2013.
LSU fans voiced displeasure when strong safety Grant Delpit was ejected from the Fiesta Bowl in what appeared to be incidental targeting — and, of course, after inside linebacker Devin White was controversially ejected from the Mississippi State game, prompting the "Free Devin White" movement that raised more $6,200 to put billboards voicing fan outrage near the Southeastern Conference headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama.
LSU's star safety Grant Delpit was ejected for targeting in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF; he was not a fan of the decision.
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After his ejection, Delpit tweeted from the locker room: "Impossible, this not football anymore."
Impossible, this not football anymore lol https://t.co/UpM39nev6X— GrantDelpit (@showtime9_) January 1, 2019
Ejecting players for borderline calls, Berry said, is something that is "not fair" and can be prevented.
"For them to be eliminated from the game on something that many would question whether it's the right call or not, we think that's pretty severe," Berry said.
The AFCA does not have legislative power within the NCAA, but Berry, who represents the coaches, said he will meet with officials during the NCAA's annual convention in Orlando, Florida, on Jan. 23-26 to lobby that the targeting rule be changed.
The targeting rule won't likely be addressed for the upcoming season, and Berry said he hopes a proposed rule change can be put on the NCAA docket by October, so that it could come to a vote next January.
Berry said coaches can also push for the change within their athletic conferences, who can propose rule changes to the NCAA.
The AFCA's proposal for a flexible targeting penalty is familiar in other sports. In soccer, officials hand out yellow cards for smaller offenses and red cards for larger ones. In basketball, officials penalize players with "flagrant one" fouls and "flagrant two" fouls.
Using the flexible penalty in football for targeting, Berry said, "is somewhat common sense."
But, if implemented, the rule would require officials to make judgment calls on what is and isn't a malicious targeting offense — a subjective judgment that would rely on looking at instant replay.
"Quite honestly," Berry said, "I think it is very, very easy for any individual (to tell what's malicious) because I can certainly see it. ... You can tell when someone is launching, if they're hitting with the crown of their head and they're actually aiming at something."
Berry said he doesn't think the proposed change means coaches are "getting light on targeting," because they're also proposing that repeat offenders suspended for multiple games.
"We're saying, 'Hey, we want these people eliminated for a longer period of time until they learn,’ ” Berry said. "If they can't, then they need to be eliminated from the game."
Four LSU players were ejected for targeting in 2018, and inside linebacker Jacob Phillips was ejected twice — in the first half against Southeastern, and in overtime against Texas A&M.
If a player receives multiple Targeting 1 penalties over the course of a season, Berry said, that wouldn't necessarily mean he would be suspended from any games.
Coaches weren't completely specific about what penalties should be within the Targeting 1 and Targeting 2, Berry said, but cutting out penalties that ejected players for borderline calls remains the main intent.
"In these situations, we're penalizing for bad things and in the same sense, we're not going to overstep and impact these kids' lives," Berry said.