Officials: Clowney's highlight hit could warrant ejection under new rules

BY foxsports • July 22, 2013

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- So, who remembers the play where South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney nearly took Michigan running back Vincent Smith's head clean off his body? It was basically the best play in college football last season. So everyone saw it, right?

And did anyone -- besides Smith, and his family members -- not think it was awesome?

Not so fast. This year, that same exact hit could mean an immediate ejection for Clowney. Or at least it would have if ACC Supervisor of Officials Doug Rhoads had been refereeing that game. During his annual talk with the media, Rhoads said he thought the hit warranted an ejection as Clowney initiated contact with the crown of his helmet on the play.

Rhoads later clarified that he has not studied the play, and that he was so distracted by the awful missed first-down call the play before that he might have missed something when watching it on television. But he said that was his first reaction.

He's not alone, either.

FOX Sports' officiating analyst and former NFL Vice President of Officiating Mike Pereira told SBNation at Big 12 Media Days that he too would have ejected Clowney for leading with the crown of his helmet.

"If I'm an official, based on 'when in doubt,' he's out. He's ejected," Pereira told SBNation's Steven Godfrey. "And when that goes to replay there's no way they overturn it. There's a great potential that hit causes an ejection this year … Remember what you're dealing with in targeting. It's the crown of the head. Not simply the helmet, but the crown of your head. Not the forehead.

"You're looking for a guy hitting who is looking at the ground."

Everyone who follows college football is aware of the rules about initiating contact with the crown of the helmet and hitting a defenseless receiver. With the passing of a new NCAA rule, this year both of those offenses will result in ejection.

The good news (or bad news, if you hate replay) is that the play will be reviewed before a player is ejected. The penalty yardage will stand regardless. But the same standard that applies to other reviews will apply to this one -- that is, the need for indisputable video evidence to overturn the call made on the field.

And there are further definitions of what it means to be a defenseless player this year: a player who receives a blindside block, a ball-carrier in the grasp, and then the best of all -- a quarterback after a change of possession. We’ll call this the Aaron Murray Rule. And yes, Rhoads clarified that even if a quarterback is attempting to make a tackle after a change of possession, he is still considered a defenseless player.

(In case anyone forgot what happened to Murray after an interception last year, he was hit hard after an interception on what is likely an illegal play under the old rules anyway. But everyone likes the idea of a quarterback becoming fair game, and now that’s no longer the case.)

So, who’s excited for the first time a prominent defensive player is ejected from a big game on a controversial call? Because that’s happening. There were 190 leading-with-the-crown-of-the-helmet/hitting-a-defenseless-player penalties called last year, and that’s why the penalties have increased this year. They mean business.

And as Rhoads also pointed out, the second sentence of that rule states: “When in question, it is a foul.” They want to err on the side of player safety, and Rhoads said that a defender leading with the crown of his helmet is often more unsafe for the defender than it is for the ball-carrier.

That won’t make it any less infuriating when your team’s favorite player gets ejected in a big moment of a big game, though.

"They're trying to change the philosophy, and I'm OK with that to a degree, but it gets dangerous when you start talking about automatic ejections," Pereira said. "Very marginal hits are going to lead to ejections that not only affect that game but the following game."