HOOVER, Ala. - While his appearance at SEC Media Days was definitely overshadowed by the arrival of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Steve Shaw nevertheless had some important things to impart on Wednesday morning.
Shaw, who is the Coordinator of SEC Football Officials, talked about rule changes and tried to put his best foot forward in defending a group that traditionally gets a healthy dose of criticism during each football season.
"Let me start by saying that I am very proud of our football officials and the hard work and what they do week-to-week to prepare themselves," Shaw said. "In fact, we have had a really good off-season as far as preparation.
"We have had two very, very strong spring clinics," Shaw added. "We just finished our instant replay clinic. We had a referee leadership session that went well. Many our of guys worked in clinics over the summer both as trainers and actually working the clinics."
Shaw talked about how his group does its homework regardless of what some fan bases might think.
"From the end of last season, we do two quizzes a month to get everybody ready," Shaw said. "A lot of guys have organized local study groups. All of this in preparation will be culminated next week. We bring all of our officials into Birmingham and have a three-day clinic to get them focused and set for the season."
Shaw noted that the testing will be both mental and physical in Birmingham.
"We test and evaluate them," Shaw said. "They have a conditioning, their favorite, mile-and-half run. We work on mechanics, rules knowledge, our points of emphasis this year. All of this is set up to get us ready to go for all fall scrimmages so we are in full stride on week one of the season."
Shaw then touched on the rule changes that will be a part of college football this fall.
"Just one point of note so you know, all rules changes are voted on by the coaches," Shaw said. "Football officials do not get a vote – it's all coaches. What you are going to see here today is approved by the coaches and the Rules Committee."
He then moved into what is arguably the biggest change – the targeting one that will see a player ejected if there is targeting above the shoulders.
"The first thing is we have a foul and a penalty," Shaw said. "Those things are very separate...The foul itself has not changed. The targeting foul is when a player... hits a defenseless player above the shoulders. Everybody say helmet-to-helmet, but elbow, anything above the shoulders, or uses the crown to the top of the helmet to deliver a blow, that's a targeting foul. That hasn't changed."
Shaw was clear that what has changed is how now a punter and quarterback are described as defenseless player throughout the play – as well as a player receiving a blindside block.
"Doesn't mean he can't be hit," Shaw said. "He can be blocked, he just can't be hit above the shoulders. So a defenseless player expands the definition of what could lead to the foul. As we said, targeting is the same as it was last year.
"The huge difference and what has caught everybody's attention, is now the penalty enforcement for a targeting foul mimics our fighting rule," Shaw added. "If you have a targeting foul that committed on the first half, then you are going to be disqualified for that game. If you have a targeting foul that's committed in the second half, you'll be disqualified for that game plus the first half of the next game."
Shaw noted that instant replay will be used to get the targeting call right.
"If in replay we see that there was no contact above the shoulders, then replay can actually put that guy back in the game," Shaw said. "So he can override that disqualification. The foul will still stand, we'll penalize that, but the disqualification can be overriden."
There has been some speculation that referees will go with the "when it doubt, throw them out" philosophy, but Shaw said the instant replay will aid in getting the call right.
"That's why we have this great back stop of instant replay," Shaw said. "It's going to put a little more, I don't want to say pressure, but impact on our replay guys to get it right."
Ironically, the new SEC Championship trophy looks like it has a defenseless player getting hit above the shoulders – something that Shaw noted.
He also said that coaches have to teach heads up tackling and to see what you hit. The players then have to execute it, but if they don't it targeting has to be called per Shaw.
"If a player doesn't execute it properly, the official has to have the courage to put the marker on the ground," Shaw said. "Our expectation is that they will."
Some other rule changes:
• Shaw noted that blocking below the waist has been totally redefined.
"I won't get into technicalities, but the concept you will see in the open field, to block below the waist, you'll have to do it from the front," Shaw said. "We're definining that between a watch hand 10 and 2."
• There will be a 10-second runoff for an injured player in the last minute of a half or the end of a game, but also a new rule that states you must have three seconds left to spike the football and stop the clock.
"What does this mean? Shaw asked. "If we have a temporary stoppage, a team is trying to score, making a touchdown, we stop the clock, but we are going to reset it. If there are three or more seconds left on the clock, they are allowed to spike the ball. But if the clock reads two seconds or one second, then there is time for only one play.
"...This will make it more consistent," Shaw added. "The quarterback will know, if he looks up and sees two seconds, he's got to run the play, not spike it."
• Unsportsmanlike conduct has been expanded per Shaw.
"We have always had a rule if you get two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls in a game, your suspended or ejected from the game," Shaw said. "Now these plays after the ball is dead, that are like – you know these little skirmishes that aren't late hits...two guys kind of chicken fighting or whatever you want to call it, that's offsetting foul. Almost like no harm no foul.
"But if it is offsetting now, that will count as one of those players unsportsmanlike, so if they do it again they will be thrown from the game," Shaw stressed.
• Shaw noted that a player whose helmet came off previously had to be out a play. But now if a timeout is called, that player can return to the game.
Shaw then asked for some understanding.
"The world and you demand perfection from our football officials and our instant replay officials," Shaw said. "That is a noble goal – tough goal, but a normal goal. What I want you to know is that our guys are really good, and we strive to improve every day, every week, to get better so we can match our teams.
"I want you to know that you have my personal assurance that our officials are going to work hard and work our plan basically around preparation, execution of our strong on-field philosophies, then a continuous learning process with a video after the game to stay the best officiating conference in America," Shaw added.
"Bottom line, our conference demands that we're as good as our teams," Shaw continued. "A big challenge, but we're excited about the season."
Targeting A Change
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