ATHENS -- Two weeks ago, when Florida cornerback Brian Poole was ejected for targeting in his team’s game against Tennessee, the video of Poole’s hit quickly made its way to the Georgia defensive meeting room.
“I pulled it off and showed it to them,” Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “That’s the only way you can learn from something when it’s new.”
And the new rule is continuing to cause confusion and controversy.
So far this year, no Georgia player has been flagged for targeting, which results in a 15-yard penalty and an automatic ejection. To hear Grantham and his players tell it, that’s not a coincidence.
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The Bulldogs have been hyper-aware of targeting, especially their hard-hitting freshman safety, who says it has affected the way he plays. In fact, Tray Matthews thinks it has something to do why his unit ranks last in the SEC in pass defense and third-down defense.
“Maybe we’re not correct here and there,” Matthews said. “But maybe some of the rules are hindering us from doing what we wanna do at times.”
The intent of the targeting rule is to prevent head injuries. But the application has left many exasperated, including Georgia secondary coach Scott Lakatos.
“Nobody knows what the rule is,” he said. “Whoever you ask they’ll give you a different interpretation. So we’re gonna go out and follow our interpretation. Make sure we don’t stick our head anywhere, make sure we don’t hit anybody too hard where their head goes backwards, and that’s the way the game is now.”
Florida head coach Will Muschamp publicly disagreed with Poole’s ejection. Upon review, an ejection can be overturned, but the 15-yard penalty cannot. Alabama has had two targeting calls this year. Against Mississippi, freshman cornerback Eddie Jackson “had a chance to pull off and should have but didn’t,” according to head coach Nick Saban. Against Texas A&M, safety HaHa Clinton-Dix was involved in what Saban called a “bang-bang” play.”
“There is an awareness in the room, like when we’re watching film in the room with the players that if they see someone do that, they’re all going, ‘Ooh, that’s targeting,’ ” Saban said. “I think everybody is playing with an awareness of what is the foul and what the consequences of the foul are. I don’t see them being less aggressive, but I see them being more aware of, ‘Hey I’ve gotta see what I hit, I can’t hit guys in the head, I can’t launch at unprotected players.’ And I think that’s probably a good thing.”
LSU head coach Les Miles, whose defense gave up plenty of big plays to Georgia on Saturday, said he didn’t think any of his defensive backs were playing hesitant.
“I think the targeting rule is very good for football,” Miles said.
Matthews said he was warned by an official during Saturday’s game that he was on the verge of a targeting call. As a result, he said, he ended up letting up on what turned out to be an LSU touchdown.
Matthews also said -- and several teammates agree -- that a greater awareness of the targeting rule is the reason he hasn’t made that many impact plays. His hard-hitting ways were the talk of spring practice, although a hamstring injury might be the next reason Matthews doesn’t make big plays, or any plays, in Saturday’s game against Tennessee.
The threat of getting tossed has the most impact. Otherwise, Matthews would risk a 15-yard penalty in order to make a big play or at least send a message.
“Yes sir. Of course I would,” Matthews said, smiling. “I want to keep playing. I told the coaches that, too. I told (Lakatos) I kind of let up on that because I didn’t want to be thrown out of the game.”
Matthews said he understands the intent of the targeting rule.
“Protect the receivers, and us as well, from concussions,” Matthews said. “But it is football.”
Georgia junior Chris Conley is in a unique position. He’s a receiver, and thus the type of player the targeting rule is intended to protect. He’s also a member of the NCAA’s student-athlete advisory committee.
Conley grants that the application of the rule is subjective right now. But the long-term effect is important.
“We want to reduce this epidemic of concussion, so that younger players who are growing up will continue to play this sport,” Conley said. “Because we’re seeing a decline in the number of kids who are playing youth football. And if that trend continues, in 25 years who knows if football will be the same in the United States. So something had to be done and this is what they decided to do. We’ll know at the end of the year whether it worked or not.”