ATHENS, Ga. – An itchy trigger finger by the Southeastern Conference office this season in firing suspensions for “dangerous” contact fouls has already made an impression among Georgia’s football program.
UGA secondary coach Scott Lakatos: "You don’t take away aggressiveness. You try to teach as fundamentally sound stuff as you can and also try to explain to them what the SEC office or the NCAA is looking for in these suspensions." (Photo by John Kelley/UGA Sports Communications)
Video clips of the hits that led to SEC-mandated suspensions in the past two weeks for defensive backs Trae Elston of Ole Miss and D.J. Swearinger of South Carolina have been shown to Georgia’s players, according to coordinator Todd Grantham.
“We showed it to them as an educational tool and showed them, ‘Here’s what they’re looking at,’ just to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Grantham said. “I think that’s the only thing you can do.”
The SEC has sent a message with its actions of the past few weeks, setting an early precedent that could make this a major talking point during the 2012 season. And really, that was intended from the beginning. On a national scale, a rule designed to protect defenseless players was to be emphasized more this year.
In the case of the SEC players, the length of the suspension has drawn as much attention as the action itself. While dangerous plays in the past have often resulted in SEC players being benched for one half, Elston and Swearinger were each sidelined by the league for entire games.
Elston did not play against Texas last weekend, while Swearinger will miss the Gamecocks’ Saturday game against Missouri.
“These rules are for the protection of the health and safety of our players on both sides of the ball,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said in a statement announcing Swearinger’s suspension. “It is imperative that our student-athletes understand the importance of this rule. Our motivation in making these decisions is to protect our student-athletes.”
Discipline handed out in each case was controversial and met with criticism from those who thought the penalties excessive.
South Carolina's D.J. Swearinger won't be allowed to play this weekend against Missouri.
In this way, the suspensions underlined an ongoing debate about the desire to protect players in high-speed, collision situations but not at the expense of removing the physicality that makes football … well, football.
“The kind of hits that (former UGA safeties) Thomas Davis and Greg Blue made, I just don’t know if they’d have played very often,” UGA coach Mark Richt said on his Monday night radio show, “because they were so physical and they got after it so much.
“But it is making it more difficult for a guy just to get after it and play hard and fast.”
Guidelines in play here are 9-1-3 and 9-1-4 of the NCAA football rulebook.
Article 3 states that, “No player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of the helmet.” Article 4 states that, “No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder.”
The SEC ruled Swearinger’s hit was in violation of Article 4 and that Elston’s violated each of the articles listed above. Each was deemed by the conference office as a “flagrant and dangerous act.”
There was warning about this issue prior to the season. SEC director of officials Steve Shaw referenced it when addressing reporters at the conference’s media days in July, calling it a “national point of emphasis” while being clear that it wasn’t necessarily a “helmet-to-helmet” issue as much as it involved a “defenseless player.”
“You will never hear one of our referees saying helmet-to-helmet,” Shaw said. “Helmets hit every play. This is targeting a defenseless player above the shoulders or using the crown of your helmet to make contact. That's a foul.”
UGA director of sports medicine Ron Courson chaired a 2005 committee that initiated change in college football's spearing rule. (Photo by Phillip Faulker/UGA Sports Communications)
The conference is allowed by a rule change of a few years ago to review game footage and access penalties beyond what was issued during a game, which is what is happening now.
Such a renewed emphasis in enforcing the rule may be new to 2012, but the actual rules are not. In Jan. 2005, UGA director of sports medicine Ron Courson chaired the Spearing & Head-Down Contact Task Force, which combined the NCAA and National Athletic Trainers Association and included trainers, physicians, officials and conference administrators.
After several high-profile injuries took place in 2004, including a hit Courson witnessed that was sustained by former Georgia receiver Reggie Brown at Auburn, the task force initiated a change to toughen college football’s spearing rule.
“With the head-to-head contact, we’re really looking at two things,” Courson said. “We’re looking at head injuries, and we’re also looking at catastrophic cervical spine injuries at well. The reason that rule was written is the most common mechanism for a severe neck injury is contact to the crown of the head, and that typically happens with a helmet-to-helmet hit.”
Courson favors the increased emphasis on the rules this season, saying, “A rule is only as good as it’s enforced.”
“That was one of the issues we had when we went back in 2005 and changed the spearing rule,” Courson said. “One of the things we looked at was the fact that it was never enforced. It’s just like offsides. If we don’t throw a flag when they jump offsides, they’ll continue to do it over and over again.”
The spirit of the rule in not in question among players and coaches. Everyone would want as safe a game as possible for those competing.
But opinions vary on how the rules are being implemented, from the severity of the punishments to the definition of a defenseless player to the players not being flagged to whether a violation could be avoided at all in some situations, regardless of a player’s intent.
UGA defensive back Sanders Commings: "It’s one thing lunging into a guy’s head when he’s defenseless. But sometimes on accident you hit somebody in the head. This is football." (Photo by UGA Sports Communications)
“A lot of times these guys, they’ll be aiming for a guy’s chest possibly,” Richt said. “They’ll be putting their face right on the guy’s chest, but if the receiver ducks down right at the moment of truth and his head lowers, then all of sudden it’s helmet-to-helmet. Now whose fault is that? So it’s a very difficult job for the officials to make the call. And it’s very difficult for the DBs to really know exactly how to get it done.”
“It’s really hard to try to think about that stuff when you’re playing,” Georgia defensive back Sanders Commings said. “It’s one thing lunging into a guy’s head when he’s defenseless. But sometimes on accident you hit somebody in the head. This is football. You don’t target the head, but football is just something that happens from time to time.”
For coaches, it represents a fine line.
They want to teach safe and proper play, but they also don’t want to lose aggressiveness or have players hesitate at a moment of impact to possibly endanger their own safety.
“We make them aware that it’s kind of a hot topic with the conference,” UGA defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos said. “They’re going to do the best they can to do their job but at the same time make sure they don’t do anything that would result in them being suspended. … You don’t take away aggressiveness. You try to teach as fundamentally sound stuff as you can and also try to explain to them what the SEC office or the NCAA is looking for in these suspensions.”
The SEC noted in announcing this season’s suspensions that a defenseless opponent is defined as “one who because his physical position and focus of concentration is especially vulnerable to injury.”
That could mean any player, theoretically. But the way the rule is being implemented, it has meant wide receivers.
As evidenced by suspensions of recent weeks, the rule is used most often to protect players taking shots while trying to catch footballs in space. Yet even some wide receivers, like Georgia senior Tavarres King, don't support the rule as it's being implemented.
“Some hits are malicious and guys know what they’re doing. But it’s football,” King said. “We play this game, and we know the dangers of this game. We know that it’s a tough game, a man’s game. I don’t want to say the rules are bad, but I feel like it’s football. We know what we’re getting into when you go out there and pad up. I mean, that’s why you play the game, to hit somebody.”
Additionally, the rule’s enforcement is often called into question by coaches because it seems to be restricted to defensive players and particularly defensive backs.
“We talk about all these defenseless guys getting hit,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said this week. “Well, how come they’re not worried about the quarterback getting hit? If he throws it, the guy wrapped him up, buried him after he’d thrown the ball. To me, that’s as bad a hit as the one D.J. made.”
“A lot of people are defenseless,” Lakatos said. “Defensive players are defenseless too. That never gets called.”
Grantham takes that a step farther.
“Right now, the main thing is focusing on defenseless offensive players,” Grantham said. “To me, there’s not as much focus on defenseless defensive players as there probably should be. The NFL has adopted the rules about the low blocks on the backside and the cutting. They’ve also adopted, on the scrambles, receivers or offensive guys can’t block back to the ball. As we move forward, hopefully that will be something that the NCAA and the colleges look at to help protect defensive players.”
Regardless, Grantham is clear on the impact of the SEC’s actions as it pertains to Georgia’s 2012 season.
They’ve been noted.
“We’ve addressed it with our players to know it’s important that you understand that moving forward,” Grantham said. “You don’t want to take away from their physical-ness or (risk) them getting themselves hurt either.
“But I think it’s something you can use as an educational tool to make sure it doesn’t happen to us.”