April 3, 2013

Coaches split on limiting hitting

From Pop Warner to the president, most everyone interested in football has made overtures to increase players' safety.

Dallas Jackson is the National Columnist for Rivals.com. Email him your comments or story ideas to DallasJ@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow him on Twitter.

The latest safety-based rule approved by the NCAA is for "targeting." It includes a 15-yard penalty and the ejection of the player who is found to be in violation of hitting helmet-to-helmet or above the shoulders of a defenseless player.

The ejection enforcement will lie with the officials. While there were coaches still in favor of the rule, there are those in the profession who worry about the next step and how it will affect game preparation and recruiting.

Utah State head coach Matt Wells is among the concerned.

"Player safety is something we have to look into improving," he said. "Penalties -- like automatic ejections -- are worrisome, especially on bang-bang plays, but we will all be dealing with that.

"Going forward, it is a concern as to what steps come next and how many rules are made for short-term gains instead of long-term solutions."

One direction that the NCAA might follow is to mimic rules on the youth level.

Pop Warner Football announced changes in its practice regulations, allowing for contact only in one-third of each practice. The organization is eliminating all drills that involve full-speed blocking, as well as tackling that is initiated by players lined up more than three yards apart to reduce violent collisions.

The new rules in the grassroots of football are stricter than those being mulled at the collegiate level.

The Ivy League voluntarily limited contact in practice at the start of the 2010 season. It made the change to two full-contact practices per week during the season and just five in the spring. By contrast, the NCAA allows 12 full-contact practices in the spring.

A reduction of contact during practice was not met with approval from college coaches.

California coach Sonny Dykes said he would not view the implementation of limited collisions as a positive step forward.

"I think there are a lot of changes happening, and most of them are in the right direction," Dykes said. "If the next step is restricting the hitting in practice, then that is a rule I think we could do without.

"In some ways it would reduce the number of impact plays, but this is still a physical game and being hit and delivering a hit are things that you need to gain experience with. There are a lot of injuries in football, and it is literally impossible to eliminate that from the game."

Recently, there have been a lot of changes made on the field to reduce the chances of injury:

Kickoffs in college and in the NFL have been moved up to the 35-yard line, which has increased the number of touchbacks and reduced the number of kickoff returns, which were found to be the most violent play in the sport. Within high school football, many state associations have enacted an automatic touchback rule on kickoffs.

Players who have their helmets knocked off on the field of play -- unless it is due to a penalty, such as a facemask -- are to be treated as if they are injured and are required to sit out a play.

Players are not allowed to leave their feet to hurdle players in an attempt to block a field goal or a punt. The goal is to eliminate the chance of a player being flipped onto his head and concussed.

All the rule changes require an adjustment period and additional coaching, and that's where Florida International coach Ron Turner sees a problem.

"NCAA legislation on less tackling will lead to more problems," he said. "Knowing how to tackle is the key to this, not tackling less.

"In saying that, the onus is on coaches. We need to spend more time with fundamentals and teaching proper tackling. Obviously we are concerned about what is happening to the players, but lessening contact in practice isn't the answer. Eliminating it from high school and youth programs will not help anyone, either."

Turner said that if the NCAA implements legislation on limiting contact in practice, college coaches would have to adjust by looking at players who are more fundamentally sound entering college.

The buck on safety would then be passed to high school coaches.

River Ridge (La.) John Curtis Christian head football coach J.T. Curtis has won more than 500 games -- including the 2012 RivalsHigh100 National Championship. He said the fundamentals of football are paramount to safety and success, regardless of level.

"Doing the right thing at the right time needs to be practiced," he said. "Whether it is blocking and tackling or running routes and delivering the ball, proper technique needs to be taught."

Curtis has worked with the NFL to host coaching clinics and instruct those in the profession on how to teach the basics.

If there is less time for college coaches to spend with players on tackling, those who have learned what is safe and within the rules of play could dictate who gets scholarship offers.

"We will have to look at guys who have an accelerated fundamental understanding of the game," Dykes said. "It would be a shift in recruiting that I think a lot of schools would have to go in and one that could have wide-ranging impact."

Former hard-hitting Dallas Cowboys safety Bill Bates is among a group of parents watching the next generation of football players.

His son, Dillon, is the No. 58 player in the Rivals100. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, the younger Bates plays safety for Ponte Vedra (Fla.) High and is being recruited as a safety or linebacker by almost every major college football program.

The elder Bates was in attendance at the Orlando stop of the Rivals Camp Series presented by Under Armour. He said the focus on safety is needed. He believes the trend of technology and rule-making is the correct one.

"I know that they're all trying to protect the body," he said.

"Having boys who played and another who's playing now, I want them in the best helmet; I want them in the best shoulder pads. I want air conditioned shoulder pads. I don't want them to die of heat on us. I don't want them to have brain damage later in life, so it's a great thing that they are all trying to do."

Bates said the new helmet technology might have tempted him to try to level even harder hits than he did during his 15-year NFL career. But with the improvements in technology comes improved health.

As Bates looks back on his career -- and forward as a father -- he is pleased with the status quo and the forward thinking.

"Everything has just gotten better," he said. "Basically it is to make it safer."

While Bates is subject to seeing his son in shorts and a T-shirt during the summer circuit events, new Boston College head coach Steve Addazio must watch his son take hits every day.

Addazio's son Louie was a tight end at Syracuse while his father coached at Temple, but Louie transferred to Boston College this year.

The elder Addazio was in agreement with Bates. He said he is not one to tell his son to stop playing football out of fear.

He was also against NCAA legislation.

"As a father, I see him taking on tough collisions every day," Addazio said. "It is a part of the game, part of who he is and part of who he wants to be.

"The best thing for everyone involved is a combination of teaching and advanced technology. Taking tackling out of football won't happen, so there has to be another answer."

The facts are stacked against doing nothing.

In 2007, the NFL released findings that showed players with at least three concussions had triple the risk of depression.

In 2012, another study revealed that players have three times the risk of neurodegenerative diseases compared to the public.

While helmet technology -- such as the Head Impact Telemetry System and Sideline Response System created by Riddell -- has started to more aggressively mitigate the problems, it may require a more aggressive approach.

But San Jose State coach Ron Caragher said rhetoric won't move the needle.

"It is on all of us to make sure the kids are having fun but also staying healthy," he said.

"The players are all trying to be bigger, stronger, faster, and the number of concussions is on the rise. We all know 'Heads up, eyes up, run through the guy,' but that clearly isn't enough anymore. I think the next wave will be dramatic and maybe looking outside of the box will be good for everyone."

Caragher has a powerful ally in President Barack Obama, who told The New Republic in January that the sport might have to change to protect players.

"I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they're grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well compensated for the violence they do to their bodies," Obama said.

"You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about."

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