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Targeting rule divisive, even among Illini

Illinois+linebacker+Ayo+Shogbonyo+celebrates+a+fumble+recovery+during+the+game+against+Rutgers+on+Oct.+24.++Illinois+has+had+a+total+of+four+players+ejected+for+targeting+during+four+separate+games+this+season.
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Targeting rule divisive, even among Illini

Illinois linebacker Ayo Shogbonyo celebrates a fumble recovery during the game against Rutgers on Oct. 24.  Illinois has had a total of four players ejected for targeting during four separate games this season.

Illinois linebacker Ayo Shogbonyo celebrates a fumble recovery during the game against Rutgers on Oct. 24. Illinois has had a total of four players ejected for targeting during four separate games this season.

Quentin Shaw

Illinois linebacker Ayo Shogbonyo celebrates a fumble recovery during the game against Rutgers on Oct. 24. Illinois has had a total of four players ejected for targeting during four separate games this season.

Quentin Shaw

Quentin Shaw

Illinois linebacker Ayo Shogbonyo celebrates a fumble recovery during the game against Rutgers on Oct. 24. Illinois has had a total of four players ejected for targeting during four separate games this season.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

Illinois safety Bennett Williams’ game against Nebraska was cut short.

On the third defensive play of the game, Williams stepped up to make a play on a receiver attempting to catch the ball over the middle of the field. As the receiver came down with the ball, Williams lowered his head and shoulder to make a tackle, but the receiver also lowered his shoulder bracing for the incoming hit. The two collided shoulder-to-shoulder, with their helmets colliding as Williams followed through with the hit.

The receiver dropped the ball, and Williams celebrated the big play. But behind him, the nearest referee threw his flag down on the spot, and after a 30-second review, the visibly fuming Williams was sent to the locker room.

“I think it’s a rule that has to change. The NCAA has to do something,” Williams said. “They can’t eject a player for the first time there’s incidental helmet-to-helmet contact. I think that’s BS, to be honest.”

He was the third Illini of the season to be called for targeting at the time.

The targeting rule, which states that “no player shall target and make forcible contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet,” was written to protect players from potentially dangerous hits.

Many think of it as the “helmet-to-helmet” rule, because it was written with crunching helmet-to-helmet hits in mind. But it isn’t just those hits that are a part of the rule. Targeting can also be called if a player makes forcible contact to the head and neck area of a defenseless player with his helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulder.

All targeting calls must be video-reviewed, but if confirmed, they carry the uniquely harsh penalty of 15 yards and an automatic ejection for the player in question.

Some have called for the rule to be replaced or tossed out of the rulebook completely. Some think that it makes the game too soft, while others say that it makes it too difficult for defenders to tackle players.

The remaining people are in favor of keeping the rule as is, with player safety front and center in their minds.

But the rule is so divisive, even people within the same camp cannot agree on what should be done with the rule.

The Illini have now been called for targeting four times this season. Williams, Tre Watson, Stanley Green and most recently James Knight have all been sent off for targeting, all in separate games. And while everyone on the team agrees that that is too many penalties, they do not all agree on how to address that.

Head coach Lovie Smith has been firm that his players simply need to lower the target in observance of the rule, and he says he doesn’t think the rule needs to change at all.

“We have to adjust better than we have,” Smith said. “It’s in black and white what we need to do – lower our target – but we have young players, and that’s a part of it too. Sometimes it can’t hardly be avoided, but the times when it can we need to do a better job.”

Smith has been working with defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson to teach his young defenders – and some of his older ones – to aim for what they call the “strike zone.” Smith and Nickerson want their players hitting between the bottom of the chest plate and the top of the knees.

But Nickerson, a former NFL linebacker himself, admitted that the plan is far from perfect, and that sometimes targeting can still be called for incidental contact.

“I think there has to be some re-evaluation of how the contact occurs,” Nickerson said. “Right now when a referee sees a tackler and a ball-carrier collide at the shoulder-to-shoulder level, it’s assumed that it’s helmet-to-helmet contact, targeting, guy out of the game.”

Williams’ hit highlighted one of the main concerns of critics of the rule. Sometimes a ball-carrier will lower his head to brace for a hit or protect the ball, covering part of the “strike zone” with his head and shoulders.

“You catch it and they’re coming down hard,” said wide receiver Malik Turner. “You want to brace, you don’t want to expose yourself.”

On the other hand, it makes the prospect of tackling a ball-carrier without clashing helmets that much harder. That is big part of the reason that Williams thinks that the NCAA needs to lighten the penalty in some cases.

“I like the review, but I think that it has to be judged on intent,” Williams said. “If it’s incidental, like the runner ducks his head at the last second, what’s a defender supposed to do? If it’s a malicious hit, then it makes sense to eject the player. But in a lot of cases, that’s not the case.”

Williams suggested that there should be different levels of the targeting penalty, like there are for facemask penalties. The existing penalty could still be enforced on tackles deemed to be malicious, but when the contact is incidental then the defender wouldn’t be ejected.

While Williams and his head coach disagree on the future of the targeting penalty, his defensive coordinator seems to be on his player’s side.

The NCAA may consider changing the way the penalty is enforced, like Williams and Nickerson hope, but the penalty itself is unlikely to change. As more research is done on the lasting impact of concussions and the effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma, player safety will continue to be a focus of football, both at the college level and at the professional level.

While both Williams and Nickerson want the NCAA to look at the rule, neither of them disagree that hits to the head and neck should be penalties.

“I think about (CTE) a little but of course I played football my entire life,” Nickerson said. “I think that anybody who’s played football, and played for a long time, thinks about it. Of course you think about those things and the ramifications of playing a collision sport.”

@Jacob_Diaz31

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