UGA coaches help players make adjustments to avoid ejection for targeting hits

The big hit from the talented freshman created big buzz this spring.

Georgia safety Tray Matthews delivered it on wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley during a closed team scrimmage. It not only got the attention of teammates but officials on hand.

“He got about eight flags on it,” cornerback Sheldon Dawson said. “Sometimes the adrenaline and the rush leads you to do certain stuff like that. Sometimes you don’t think, you just go.”

It was an example of how college football’s new targeting penalty meant to improve player safety could impact the game.

Linebacker Amarlo Herrera said when he watched a replay of the hit, Matthews should not have actually been penalized on the play because he delivered the hit to the chest, but full-speed it might have looked different.

“It’s the interpretation of the guys on the field that you have to be aware of,” secondary coach Scott Lakatos said.

A targeting foul is called when a defenseless player is hit above the shoulders. The hit could be with the defender’s helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder or by using the crown of the helmet to deliver a blow.

The change is the how the penalty is enforced. A targeting foul called in the first half of a game will mean immediate ejection for the rest of the game and if it’s called in the second half, the player is gone from that game and the first half of the next game.

“Playing time is a motivator to our players, and we think this will have a pretty significant impact,” Southeastern Conference coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said.

The new rule has been a hot topic leading up to the season, which kicks off with games on Thursday. Georgia plays at Clemson Saturday in a top-10 matchup.

In Georgia’s three preseason scrimmages, there haven’t been any targeting penalties called, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. SEC officials work the scrimmages.

“We’ve addressed it with our players,” Grantham said. “We understand where the target’s been. There’s been no targeting fouls in our scrimmages and really haven’t seen any in the live scrimmages in practice. It’s something you’ve got to continue to work because it can happen in a split second because you’ve got to make a decision pretty quick.”

The disqualification can be overridden by a replay official, but the 15-yard penalty will remain.

“It’s like a normal instant replay,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I was thinking that maybe a play was run, there’s a commercial break, you could look at it for five minutes if you want and then decide, ‘Hey, the guy’s back in.’ They have to decide in the same time frame of a normal replay.”

Added Lakatos: “We’re trying to make sure that we understand what the officials on the field are going to do because they’re the guys that are being asked to make the decision. They have to make the decision in a snap. They don’t have the benefit of watching it on video.”

Shaw called the targeting penalty “the most significant rule change” in his 25 years as an official and coordinator.

“They’re basically making us play flag football,” Florida defensive lineman Dominque Easley said. “It’s hard. You can’t really control where you want to hit, but it’s part of the game. Rules come. You’ve got to follow them.”

Defenseless players include a receiver attempting to catch or having just caught a pass, players who have just thrown a pass, a kick returner attempting to catch the ball and a quarterback after a change of possession.

“I feel bad for refs having to decipher what was a target and what was not,” said Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, who was hit in the head by Alabama defensive lineman Quinton Dial in the SEC championship game last year after throwing an interception. “It’s going to be tough for them, but any way to make the game safer, I’m all for.”

Said Grantham: “The problem is the decision-making skills of, ‘Did you target the guy in the head or did you hit the guy in the chest area and it slide up?’ That’s where the difficulty comes in the officiating standpoint. They’ve got a tough job in that area. The bottom line is they’re going to err on safety. You’ve got to understand that and just got to make sure you don’t put yourself in position where they can call it.”

Georgia’s defensive players were shown a tape this spring of plays from scrimmages and other SEC games to learn what would be considered a clean hit, what could be a penalty and the reasons why.

“The coaches have done a great job of showing us where not to hit and where to hit,” freshman safety Quincy Mauger said. “We’re very disciplined in where to hit right now.”

Grantham said Georgia also does drills to “let them understand where their target area needs to be.”

Georgia cornerback Damian Swann said player ejections for targeting will be a deterrent.

“I think with guys about to lose playing time or get a suspension, I think that’s going to change a lot of ways that guys participate and play,” Swann said.

Added Dawson: “It’s going to be a hard rule because, for one, it’s football, and how it’s just changing now. The way we’re working on it and we’re working at it, we’ll do good at it.”

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