College coaches: Don’t blame us for helmet hits
College coaches have been watching closely as the NFL has
cracked down on dangerous tackles and helmet hits. They’ve heard
some of the league’s defensive stars complain that they’re just
playing the way they’ve always played.
And they have a reply: Don’t blame us.
”I only know how I’ve taught kids my whole life. I’ve never
told anyone to leave their feet, lead with their head. I just never
have. I’ve never taught anyone to do anything that’s illegal,
that’s not in the rule book. I was never taught that, and I’ve been
playing a long time,” said Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, who was a
longtime NFL assistant before taking the top job with his alma
College coaches from around the country echoed Marrone’s
sentiment over the past week. They say players are taught to tackle
with their heads up, never to use the crown of the helmet to strike
an opponent, and to target an opposing player’s midsection.
After a particularly scary spate of violent hits two weeks ago,
the NFL imposed heavy fines on several players, including
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, and said it would
start suspending players who inflict violent and illegal helmet
Harrison’s hit did not draw a penalty flag during the game.
”How can I continue to play this game the way that I’ve been
taught to play this game since I was 10 years old?” Harrison said
on Sirius/XM radio last week. ”And now you’re telling me that
everything that they’ve taught me from that time on, for the last
20-plus years, is not the way you’re supposed to play the game any
more? If that’s the case, I can’t play by those rules. You’re
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said the hit Harrison made
on Cleveland receiver Mohamed Massaquoi that drew a $75,000 fine is
the type of contact ”you’re getting praised for” in defensive
The NCAA addressed the dangers of players hitting with their
helmets back in 2005, when it changed the rules against spearing to
remove any reference to intent. The old rule penalized players who
intentionally led with their helmets, forcing officials to judge
whether a dangerous, high-speed hit was deliberate. The rule change
made all helmet hits penalties.
The change was made to protect the player doing the hitting as
much as the player being hit. An unfortunate reminder of that came
two weeks ago when Rutgers player Eric LeGrand suffered a spinal
cord injury and was paralyzed making a tackle on special teams.
And just like the NFL, conferences are doling out suspensions
for dangerous hits to the head.
Just this week, the Southeastern Conference suspended
Mississippi State linebacker Chris Hughes one game for a flagrant,
high hit away from the play on what was determined to be a
defenseless UAB receiver during Saturday’s game.
Earlier this season, South Carolina linebacker Rodney Paulk was
suspended half a game for a helmet-to-helmet hit against Kentucky’s
The Big 12 on Wednesday suspended Nebraska linebacker Eric
Martin for the 14th-ranked Cornhuskers’ game Saturday against No. 7
Missouri for ”targeting an opponent with the crown of his helmet”
in the Oklahoma State game.
The FCS Big Sky conference also suspended an Eastern Washington
player for a high hit.
The NCAA gives coaches access to instructional videos on how to
properly tackle. Coaches say they work on tackling fundamentals in
practice, but by the time a player gets to college he’s already
made hundreds of tackles.
Minnesota safety Kyle Theret said he learned how to tackle in
high school, when he didn’t need to lay out an opponent to get him
”You learn the right way because you’re not going up against as
many big guys so you can learn the right way. Now you’re going up
against a lot bigger guys, so you’ve got to try to hit them as hard
as you can so a lot of people are leading with the head,” he said.
”A lot of times it’s just natural movement. If the running back
puts his head down, you don’t put your head down or you’re going to
get run over.”
Virginia coach Mike London said he and his staff will point out
improper tackling techniques when they are watching film with
”It’s an ongoing opportunity to teach, to educate them, because
heaven forbid something happens,” he said. ”It’s happened
nationally to a couple people already. You just don’t want to be in
that situation. We’re always constantly harping on doing the right
thing and keeping your head up, wrapping with your arm, more chest
to chest with arms.”
College Football Writer Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and AP
Sports Writers Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis, Hank Kurz in
Charlottesville, Va., and John Kekis in Syracuse, N.Y., contributed
to this report.