Virginia’s freshman wide receiver Tavares Kelly came around the end on a double reverse, and made his way up the field before coming head-to-head with Virginia Tech’s Ricky Walker. Walker flattened Kelly to the ground with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter of the 100th edition of the Commonwealth Clash.
The Hokies’ bell cow flexed his muscles in celebration, but that celebration quickly turned to panic when the head referee Jeff Flanagan signaled that the previous play was under review for targeting.
Walker had played in 49 career games while donning the maroon and orange, and he was largely the face of Virginia Tech in 2018. However, in an instant, his fate was in the hands of replay officials. If ejected, Walker’s last collegiate game could have ended in that moment.
“I just kept asking the coaches, ‘Did they get me? Am I gone?’” Walker said. “I just kept saying in my head, ‘Dang, they got me. They got me.’ Next thing you know, it was all good, and I was good to go.”
Flanagan informed the crowd that the call stood, and Walker remained in the game. However, many armchair officials on Twitter felt it was textbook targeting, and Walker deserved to be ejected.
The call highlights the deeper issue with the targeting penalty. There’s no consistent enforcement of the penalty.
“It’s a gray area, big time,” said defensive coordinator Bud Foster at a press conference a few weeks ago. “There were several plays you can take off each week, and they can be questionable as targeting. It’s a very questionable play. It’s a hard play to call. There’s several plays where they could stop the game that they don’t. To pick one play out in our game when there’s several others that could be called.”
As the rule currently states, the NCAA defines targeting as:
No player shall target and make forcible contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul.
No player shall target and make forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder. This foul requires that there be at least one indicator of targeting (See Note 1 below). When in question, it is a foul.
“Note 1” includes launching, crouching followed by upward thrust, leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow, and lowering the head.
It’s a good rule at first glance, but it’s also a rule that cannot be applied dependably across the board because of multiple scenarios. For one, it doesn’t account for player movement, and this isn’t just myself assessing that, but several Virginia Tech players who took the field.
“My perspective as a player understanding is that they’re giving us a very limited and fluid strike zone for us to hit an athlete,” said Willie Pile, who played with Virginia Tech from 1998-2002 and the NFL from 2003-2005. “These are two bodies moving at a high rate of speed, very physical. It is virtually impossible to slow down and adjust as a receiver adjusts.
“You want player safety to be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, so using the shoulder is the number one thing. Even a shoulder pad aimed at someone’s sternum, and then they duck, becomes forcible contact to the head or neck area. Now you’re in trouble as a defensive player.”
Football is uber fast-paced, where one instantaneous movement could change a clean hit to one now enforceable for targeting. It’s led to guys being ejected and having one fewer opportunity to showcase their talent on some of the biggest stages. LSU star linebacker and projected first round pick Devin White had to miss the first half of the Tigers’ biggest game of the season against Alabama because of a bogus targeting call the week before.
“I think it hinders the game because football is all circumstantial,” said Aaron Rouse who played for Virginia Tech from 2002-2006 and the NFL from 2007-2010. “It’s all situational. Nobody wants to be hit, so you’re going to have guys moving constantly. There’s no one standing still. While we like to make the game safer, I’m all for making sure the game is safer, I think we may be doing ourselves a disservice to the game because you cannot take physics out of football.”
While Walker avoided the penalty, the Hokies have been snake bitten by a targeting call earlier in the year. In the second half versus Georgia Tech, whip linebacker Khalil Ladler collided with quarterback Tobias Oliver. Ladler was ejected for the helmet-to-helmet hit, and by rule it was the correct call, but he was simply making a football play. For Pile, it reminded him of a lot of the hits he used to make.
“I realize that if I were playing at this time a lot of the hits I prided myself on would probably be illegal,” Pile said. “They would have gotten me consideration for ejection. It is tough.”
Virginia Tech is actually one of the most disciplined teams in terms of targeting since the rule was introduced in 2013. In 2017, Akron, New Mexico State, Ohio State, Temple, Texas A&M, UCLA, and Utah all garnered five targeting penalties apiece.
The Hokies, meanwhile, had none. Part of it can be attributed to the fundamentals that Foster teaches in tackling, but that doesn’t mean he’s without a bone to pick.
“We practice as good fundamentals as anybody, as far as how we teach tackling,” Foster said. “Obviously, we take the head out of it. The helmet is for protection and not as a weapon… It always seems like it’s called on defenses and in kicking situations. You never see it called on a crack-back block. That’s my gripe as a defensive guy. There’s a lot of defenseless defenders who are being blocked. It needs to be called both ways in my opinion.”
Part of those fundamentals in tackling now is that defenders go low for the legs. It’s the safer move in terms of limiting head injuries, but it’s also brought about areas of concern elsewhere. Yes, football players injure their knees because of freak incidents on the field, but other times it’s because of a direct tackle to the knee.
“I once heard a story,” Pile said. “An NFL receiver went to a DB and said, ‘Hey man, I’ll pay the fine for helmet-to-helmet, just don’t take out my legs. I need my legs to run. I’d rather sit out a week with a concussion or dizziness or head injury than miss the whole season because I blew out my ACL.’ He was telling DB’s he’d rather have them go for his head rather than his legs. You hear that a lot. If conversations like that are happening, you know there needs to be some adjustments.”
So what is the solution to making the game of football safer, but not softer? Head coach Justin Fuente and other coaches have talked about possibly following the guidelines of NCAA basketball.
“Ever since the targeting rule went in, coaches, not as a unifying force, but at least have brought up the discussion of flagrant 1 and flagrant 2, similar to basketball,” Fuente said. “I think that’s at least a discussion that needs to continue. I do believe in the rule. As with any rule, I think it’s always good that we continue to evaluate the effect it has. It has, not totally eliminated, but it has limited the hits we’re trying to legislate out of the game.”
“We don’t want to take a step back in player safety, but I think it’s good and healthy to have those conversations. I think that’s the most prevalent suggestion that either refs or coaches have had, investigating the whole intent, or not sure exactly how we want to define it, flagrant 1, flagrant 2, ways to administer that rule.”
The issue with that solution of course lies in determining intent. If officials are having a hard enough time concluding whether a hit is targeting or not, trying to figure out intent as well could just complicate things even more. It could be a step in the right direction, but ultimately, Virginia Tech, and every other team, must handle the targeting penalty being regulated the exact same way. Like it or not, player safety is the chief concern in the hard-hitting and punishing sport.
“As a coach and as a player, similarly as baseball athletes adjust their target when they’re hitting if the ump is calling it a certain way, you have to adjust,” Pile said. “If they’re calling ticky tack fouls in a basketball game, you have to adjust. As athletes especially, at the level that Virginia Tech is playing on in college, you just have to adjust.”