Analysis: Good and Bad Big Hits in College Football

| by

By Michael Felder

I've been waiting to write this article for quite some time.

It started with week two when Nickoe Whitley was flagged for a hit against Emory Blake on the sidelines. Then it got a bit hotter when Utah State's McKade Brady was not just flagged but tossed from the game against BYU for a hit on BYU's Ross Apo. This past weekend's Nigel Bradham straight smoking of CJ Brown was the hit that ultimately moved this guy late on Wednesday as I sat and re-watched the game.

When the hit came on the game became secondary as I watched it over and over and over again. Trying to figure out where the actual penalty came from. What was Bradham supposed to do differently? What was the penalty actually called for? 

The more I watched the less clarity I got on the situation. I saw a quarterback get loose up the field, think he had room to run, then decide to slide when he was about two steps shy of a defender already starting the initial process of delivering the blow. Hell yeah the hit look bad, it was the sort of thing that makes an entire defense go "WOOOOOO!" as they hear the pop. Yes, CJ Brown went down and all we can do is hope the young man comes out okay and his concussion symptoms clear up going forward.

It was also good football. Yet, so many people, the referees included, decided that this was a "bad" hit based upon the contact made and the fact that Brown had to leave the ball game. This reaction has happened every time this type call has been made. I've come out and said "bad call" and folks have bombarded me with "it was helmet to helmet" or "he led with his helmet" messages. So much so that I had to sit down and look at the rulebook again; perhaps the NCAA had added something to their rules that I just wasn't aware of.

The problem is they haven't. What I realized is a whole bunch of people don't know the damn rule and the rule itself, much like the NFL "devastating hit" rule, doesn't exactly take into account the variables that exist during the process of making a football play.

We'll start by giving you the actual rule itself; something most people haven't bothered to actually look up. There are two rules that pertain to this issue; targeting and contact to the head. Here's the initial thoughts from the NCAA as posted in the "Coaching Ethics" portion of the previously linked rulebook:

Targeting and initiating contact. Players, coaches and officials should emphasize the elimination of targeting and initiating contact against a defenseless opponent and/or with the crown of the helmet.

For our first discussion here's Rule 9 Section 1 Article 3:

No player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul.

That's the rule folks. That's it.

With my awesome paint skills I've created this beautiful drawing on the Schutt ION 4D helmet.


That's your standard football helmet. The red area? That's the crown of the helmet. The green zones? That's what you use when you're making a proper hit or tackle.

The rule regarding the crown is more commonly known as spearing. Spearing is a dangerous act that not only can injure the player being hit but, as we've seen in ugly instances throughout football, can result in the player doing the hitting being knocked unconscious and possibly paralyzed. Dropping your head is a serious "NO" in football at every level. There's a reason football locker rooms all over the country have a "See What You Hit" poster in them.

Guys who drop their head to deliver a blow need to be flagged. It's dangerous and can have devastating consequences. Spearing is a practice that has to be nipped in the bud. At best it results in a guy missing a tackle as a ball carrier spins, sidesteps or jukes out of the way. At worst it results in another young man laying on the field waiting for spineboarding as he sits, unable to feel his arms and legs.

But the point here is every player who has helmet to helmet contact or "leads with the helmet" is not in the wrong. In fact, your helmet, in a proper form tackle, is supposed to hit the ball carrier first. Proper form is the facemask and forehead contacting the ball carrier, hips exploding through him, shooting arms through him, running the feet through contact and driving them into the ground. Tackles don't always go as such but if a kids got his facemask and forehead on the ball carrier he's doing the right things to make that tackle.

I look at Nigel Bradham and the late decision to slide by CJ Brown. Bradham has his head across to make Brown run through his body. He has his head up, contact comes from facemask, forehead and side of helmet, he's got his hips sunk, he's running to the contact point and if Brown doesn't decide to slide late this is a perfect shot to the chest that drops the running quarterback. However, Brown does slide late, the chest becomes the head and the result is Brown taking a pop that sends him out of the game.

Which brings us to our next issue, the defenseless player and how that plays into calls in the secondary such as the aforementioned Brady and Whitley incidents. Rule 9 Section 1 Article 4 for that:

No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder. When in question it is a foul.

Accompanying this rule is Rule 2 Section 27 Article 14 which lets us know that a defense player is anyone in the act of or just finishing a pass or a kick, a receiver or returner who is focused on making the catch, a player on the ground following the play or a player who is "clearly" out of the play.

As a defensive back there is an operation protocol when the ball is thrown; 1-intercept the pass, 2-bat the ball away and if those cannot be achieved then 3-separate the man from the ball or 4-secure the tackle to minimize the gain.

This rule, at its heart, is a solid move to eliminate plays such as this Taylor Mays kill shot in the Rose Bowl, but, the clarity of this play is not present in the bulk of the calls that we're seeing on Saturdays. In the case of Emory Blake the play was flagged but this typifies the variable laden judgement burden that is laid on officials during a bang-bang play.

Auburn fans saw a targeting the head and a "dirty" play by Whitley. I saw a receiver jumping for the ball and a defensive back covering the deep half moving to separate the man from the ball. Whitley is squared, head up, facemask and shoulders make contact first and he runs to contact. Textbook. The problem? Blake is not only descending from his leap to grab the ball but he sees Whitley coming and makes himself small and braces for the contact, tucking his chin, lowering his head and all.

I'm not sure what Whitley is supposed to do differently, it's football not math class. On the full sprint expecting the young man to shift his target is damn near impossible. If Blakes in the air longer he collisions him at the gut or sternum. If Blake doesn't duck to brace for the hit Whitley goes through his left shoulder into his chest.

I definitely don't want Whitley attempting to alter his target by trying to go lower; risking putting his head down and the spinal injury that could come from that. I definitely don't want Whitley just allowing the catch and shoving Blake out of bounds.

The point is the rule is about the target on a defenseless player. Whitley's targeting was not the problem. The contact was initiated at the head area because of the receiver's reaction not because Whitley was doing the same as Taylor Mays. It's a bang-bang call but the fact is Nickoe Whitley is playing good defense, doing what he's coached to do and using good technique in, what should have been, a win for the Mississippi State defense on that series.

Now, for the most egregious call that we've seen this year. A Friday night game that was absolutely epic out in Provo where defense back McKade Brady was not just flagged for "targeting" but was also ejected from the game.

First of all Ross Apo of BYU is 6'3". McKade Brady is generously listed at 5'11". Apo is also in the air for this football. To dislodge a football a player has to make contact in the chest area; that's where you hit someone to knock the ball loose. From the chest to the top of the shoulders. That's how you jar a football out when they are in the process of making a catch. Brady is already four inches short and Apo is in the air, he has to jump.

Next, not even getting into Apo giving up on the ball because he sees a defender coming, Brady never hits the kid in the neck or head. He collisions the back shoulder of the receiver. Watch the replay at the 1:19 mark, pause it if you must:

There's the screengrab. Apo's head is clearly not being touched, Brady and all 5'11" inches of him is on the back shoulder. You know, where Apo would have caught the ball had he not decided he wanted no parts of it and ducked his head bracing for contact. Not only is his head not targeted but Brady has his head up, he's in the air because, as you can see, he's tiny compared to Apo and standing there could have given up a Cougars TD, something no safety is signing up to do.

This bad call was then compounded by ejecting the kid from the game. So they made a bad call. Then made a worse decision. Compared to Whitley's possible "exact, specifics of the rule" call this is the worst we may ever see.

As a guy who loves defensive play and especially the work of defensive backs these calls have begun to take on a life of their own. People are mistaking "looks bad" for "is bad" while players like Brady and teams like Florida State are paying the price. I don't care what a hit looks like; no flag should have been thrown on Nigel Bradham or McKade Brady. The variables of the game make the Whitley call quite questionable as well.

If you're going to enforce the rules fine but enforce them as they stand, not by the "oooh" factor in a stadium. Don't penalize a kid for having his head up, running to contact, making a tackle or jumping to make a play on a bigger player. That's good football and kids like Whitney aren't out there doing equations to determine all sorts of math-y math-isms with regards to speed, velocity, trajectory and such in relation to a moving target.

Football's a dangerous game and guys get blown up. It isn't always someone being the bad guy or a player out to play dirty, sometimes it is just good football. Wide receivers like Ross Apo and Emory Blake are no more defenseless than a punt cover guy chasing down a wall return or a defense tackle who gets earholed by a guard on a trap block.

When a kid has his head down and he's hitting with the crown flag him, that has to stop and it is the rule both for his safety and the safety of the player he is attempting to tackle. When you get a Taylor Mays type situation throw a flag refs but this targeting call shouldn't discourage good football plays like that of Whitley or Brady.

Get more great college football analysis over at In The Bleachers.