Big Ten Officials Coordinator Talks Targeting

This was not the first year the Big Ten made its coordinator of officials available to reporters on the second day of the conference's football media days, but it might have been the first one that saw him occupied for the entire two-hour session. The main topic? Targeting.

Bill Carollo was a popular man in Chicago, and he had an unpopular addition to the rulebook to thank.

Not that the Big Ten coordinator of officials was complaining though. The 61-year-old Wisconsin native who spent 20 years as an official for NFL games and took his current position with the Big Ten in 2009 was happy to try to explain the targeting rule to anyone who had a question – and there were plenty of questions in the wake of the addition of an automatic ejection to the pre-existing 15-yard penalty for initiating contact with the crown of the helmet or "targeting" a defenseless player.

"The message has been lower the target zone. We're spending a lot of time with the media. We spent a lot of time yesterday with the Big Ten (Network), a key partner of ours to make sure they understand," he said.

"Many years ago these weren't fouls. There were top 10 plays on Fox Sports… Now we're trying to get the players to think that's not good. That's usually a penalty. Those great plays are fouls and you might not be playing next week. The whole idea is to make sure the penalty is more severe and make sure it is immediate. We think we're going to get a behavioral change. We might be wrong, but we're trying to keep our focus on players health and safety."

He fielded inquiries with eagerness and gave clear answers that were clearly not off the cuff, and the reason for that is talking targeting is nothing new for Carollo. He has been doing it for months, at least since the NCAA rules committee announced the decision to eject players in addition to the yardage marked off.

His talking points sounded well-worn, but he was candid and respectful in fielding the same variation of a handful of questions over and over again while seated at a table in the Chicago Hilton.

"There are two categories: the first category is using the crown of the helmet," Carollo said. "That is 15 yards and a disqualification. He does not have to be defenseless. You just can't hit your opponent with the top of your helmet. I'm going to break my neck, and I might hurt the guy that I'm hitting. That's one area that you just can't – and years ago it was called spearing if the guy was laying on the ground and (the defender) was using his helmet and went into him and could break his neck. It has expanded now and they're doing it more often so using the crown of the helmet is one thing."

The second part of the rule in question comes into play in the instance a defender targets a defenseless player. The key in that case is that contact is initiated in the head or neck area and the player receiving the hit fits the "defenseless" criteria. Carollo was eager to point out helmet-to-helmet contact (as long as it does not involve the crown of the helmet) is legal if a player is considered able to defend himself – and in most cases a player with the ball is not considered defenseless. The most notable exceptions come at the beginning and end of a pass. A player in the act of or just completing the act of throwing the ball is considered defenseless, as is a receiving attempting to make a catch or one who has caught the ball but not yet had time to protect himself or "clearly become a ball carrier." Those players can be hit but not in the neck or head by the defenders head, neck, shoulders, forearms or hands.

"Defenseless" status came into play with a particular moment that has become a flashpoint in conversations about the rule changes during the offseason, one in which South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney smacked into Michigan running back Vincent Smith during the Outback Bowl in January. Clowney charged into the backfield unblocked and hit Smith just as he was receiving the handoff with a hit that knocked the ball loose and Smith's helmet off. No flag was thrown on the play, and Carollo believes that was the right decision.

"First of all he has to be defenseless, so the Clowney play the question is was that runner defenseless? He didn't have a real good chance to protect himself but it wasn't a passer or a receiver so if he's not defenseless you can have contact in the head. If he used the crown it still would have been a foul. He kept his head up, he tried to wrap up, he went to the side a little bit and the facemask just popped and the helmet came off. Sometimes my hand can do that," Carollo said.

"We don't use the word intent, but if I take aim and I launch and I go in there high and the only reason is to hit you high, you're going to pay the price probably."

Carollo added that in addition to his own viewpoint no foul occurred on the play, he later talked to members of the Michigan coaching staff who saw Clowney's hit as a good football play.

Beyond defining the rule, it seems coaches, players, fans, media and other followers of college football have another concern, perhaps the more valid one – will the rule be enforceable in a uniform fashion, or will some players be ejected while others continue playing after making the same types of hits?

Carollo sounded like someone who understands the nature of questions but believes inconsistencies can be eliminated by a combination of experience and technology.

"A lot of responsibility (falls) on the officials on the field, but that's why we spent a lot of money and time to train the officials," he said. "We're training them to make the call and they're capable of making the call in my opinion. Will they make mistakes? You bet. We'll make five or six mistakes a game, but we expect them to make that call and if we're wrong replay will be our lifeline."

Although he did not specify, it stands to reason Carollo meant five or six mistakes per game in general, not in flagging or failing to flag crown-of-the-helmet hits and targeting fouls because he later estimated targeting fouls were called only six or eight times in the Big Ten last season with one or two more that could have been called. One player was ejected, an option that existed last year but is mandatory this season then subject to review in the booth.

His confidence the rule will be interpreted and implemented correctly more often than not was unmistakeable, though he also conceded some concerns from those on the sidelines and in the stands are well-founded.

"Are there a few plays that are gray area? When you see it, you know it," he said. "He launched, he targeted, the guy is knocked out, the ball is way over the head and I'm leading with my helmet like a Cuban missile. My grandkids could say that's a foul, so the ones that are gray area will we get some different calls? Maybe, possibly. So the default is if it's that close we don't want you to guess, but if it has this element and this element that we told you about, it's probably a targeting foul. Throw the flag, if you're wrong replay will confirm it. Protect the player. That's our No. 1 goal."

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