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

mater.

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

hits.

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

handicapping me.”

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

meetings.

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

Randall Cobb.

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

down.

”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

players.

”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.