Local high school football coaches react to NFHS targeting rule

Players run a drill during practice Aug. 17 at Richmond-Burton High School. The National Federation of State High School Associations announced a new “targeting” rule last month aimed at preventing serious head injuries.
Players run a drill during practice Aug. 17 at Richmond-Burton High School. The National Federation of State High School Associations announced a new “targeting” rule last month aimed at preventing serious head injuries.

Chris Schremp has been teaching tackling to his Prairie Ridge football players the same way for long enough that he’s not fazed when rules change.

So when the National Federation of State High School Associations announced a new “targeting” rule aimed at preventing serious head injuries last month, Schremp took it in stride.

The rule defines targeting as “an act of taking aim and initiating contact to an opponent above the shoulders with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulders.” The change was one of 10 rule changes approved by the NFHS board. The result is a 15-yard penalty.

A player will be ejected only if the official decides that the targeting was flagrant.

“I think it’s the right rule, it’s the right thing to do,” said Schremp, who has taught the Heads Up tackling technique for the past nine years. “You’ve got to make the game safer to keep kids involved.”

Richmond-Burton coach Pat Elder said coaches are more aware of head injuries and have adjusted the way they teach tackling. The days of coaches using dangerous drills are long gone, replaced with much safer practices.

But Elder can’t remember a time in the past two seasons when his team would have been called for “targeting.” Elder understands the trickle-down that occurs as penalties that are first called at the NFL level eventually make their way to high school.

The difference, Elder said, is that while pro and college football have review policies in place to allow coaches to challenge an official’s call, they can’t protest a ruling that could have been made by an official airing on the side of caution.

While targeting and a defenseless player penalty that will also begin this fall haven’t been specifically defined, Elder believes game officials have been long looking out for players’ best interests.

“It’s really bringing football back to its roots,” Elder said. “It’s bringing the shoulders and the lower body back into the game, it’s stressing fundamentals more and doing things the right way. It’s moving it away from that SportsCenter mentality (of emphasizing big, dangerous hits) and I think that’s a good thing.”

Johnsburg coach Mike Maloney, however, worries that because the NFHS has put the spotlight on targeting and a new defenseless player definition, referees may be more on the lookout for hits that could border the two new penalties.

He said the two definitions will now be added to a long list of rules that will be open to a wide range of interpretation among officials. Dundee-Crown coach Vito Andriola tends to agree, saying that officials are already being asked to see so much that he worries adding new wrinkles could lead to problems.

But John Widmayer, a veteran high school official, said simply putting a definition on “targeting” won’t have a big difference in the game or how he or his officiating peers do their jobs.

Since head injuries and concussions have drawn greater attention, Widmayer said officials have been on the look-out for hits that could be considered dangerous. Widmayer’s issue, however, is that with only five officials working a game at the varsity level, seeing everything – even when it comes to illegal hits to the head – will be difficult.

“This is going to be a point of emphasis for us,” Widmayer said “I don’t think it’s going to change the way we call a game at all. There’s been such an emphasis about the head for 15 years now that it’s already ingrained in us about leading with the head.”

But the new definitions, Maloney maintains, will put players in a difficult spot. That is especially true for defensive units like Johnsburg’s, which is taught three things: To line up correctly, fly to the ball and play fast. Maloney already feels, as a defensive-minded coach, that he is at a disadvantage in a game that he said is geared toward the offense to generate more excitement and point-production.

“If your (defensive) emphasis is to play fast, you can’t ask (kids) to slow down and analyze the play before making a hit,” Maloney said. “You want them to hit now and ask questions later. We’re going to continue to coach that way.

“We want an aggressive defense. I can’t have a defense that’s trying to figure out the play, ‘Should I hit them here? Am I too high? Is my body position wrong?’ I want them to react and go make the hit.”

Maloney appreciates the necessity for safety, but fears that putting too many parameters on defining aspects of the game could impact on how football is played. As a high school basketball official, Maloney also believes the new definitions will put pressure on officials.

Schremp, however, doesn’t believe that will be the case.

“Every year, they come out with a point of emphasis and it’s a frustrating thing every year when you go through it,” Schremp said. “It’s kind of like this is the penalty of the year that they’re throwing at us For everybody, it’s just an adjustment period. I think this is the next evolution.”

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