By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Last year the Big 12 didn’t have much trouble selling itself in the preseason. Between having a long list of star players to publicize, it also could turn to endless expansion talk with the addition of West Virginia and TCU.
But this year much of the interest in the league has been deflected away from those who play the game and even those who coach it toward the men who make the calls, the men in the striped shirts.
It is more than just a Big 12 issue, stretching across the nation and even reaching into baseball.
The game is changing, in a big part because of the way it is played, in a big part because of available technology and, in a big part, because it has become too dangerous.
Just this week a promising high school prospect in Georgia, a defensive back with an offer to play at Kentucky, was killed from a broken neck suffered while making a tackle. This would cause calls for changes if it stood alone, but it was the fourth football-related death this month — and the season hasn’t started yet.
This, of course, falls right in line with the new targeting rule that officials will be enforcing this season, and while the rule was written to protect defenseless ball carriers or receivers it also will protect from broken necks by its very nature, which is to take helmet-first hits out of the game.
During Big 12 Media Day, Walt Anderson, head of the conference’s officials, put it this way, even before the latest death:
“Because the game is under attack, and we will either work at changing this culture from within or it will be worked at being changed from without, and I don’t think anybody within the game will argue that we would much rather change it from within than have it changed for us from without by other people.”
The targeting rule is just the latest step in taking some of the physicality out of football, some fear to the detriment of what made it become America’s favorite sport.
It is a rule that has coaches on edge, for it carries not only an automatic ejection of the player who hits a defenseless player too aggressively but it is an ejection that carries over into the next game.
At West Virginia, the main fear was that safety Karl Joseph, a sophomore who led the team in tackles a year ago as a true freshman, is in danger of having his aggressiveness cut down or facing a series of ejections.
Because of that, Coach Dana Holgorsen made a tape of Joseph’s hits and sent them to Big 12 officials to find out which were legal and which were not, while also having his team sit through a presentation of Big 12 officials about the new rule.
Then after he received the results of the tape study by the league and analyzing them, he sat down with Joseph to go over the situation.
“I don’t think it will affect me like people think,” Joseph said the other day. “It’s more about being smart. Don’t hit the receiver when he is defenseless. I haven’t really changed anything. I just have to be smart about it when the guy is defenseless and lower my target zone.”
The targeting rule is not the only change in officiating this season — there is another that Holgorsen believes might help his offense.
That would be the addition of an eighth official. One of his major responsibilities is to spot the ball and put it in play, taking that away from the referee.
“When we experimented with it in the spring, the Big 12 brought in a crew and I was out there behind the quarterback calling sacks so I was able to watch how it played out,” Holgorsen said. “The referee, the guy that usually spotted the ball — I felt so bad for that guy at times over the past couple of years. He would have to hold the ball or he would be getting out of there as we were snapping it, and then he could not sit there and focus on what was going on.
“Watching it in the spring, which we tempoed a good bit that specific day, he was just back and I was talking to him the whole time. He was saying, ‘Oh man, this is going to be great.’ He can help dictate when there are subs, when the guy needs to get out of there, focus more on false starts, focus more on misalignments, have his wits about him on protecting the quarterback and make holding calls. I think it is just going to be more efficient.”
Holgorsen wasn’t sure it will make a difference in the speed of getting the ball in play as much as with the efficiency of calling the game, but he would never complain if it allowed him to go even faster when he wanted to.
“From a tempo aspect, I felt like you can play pretty fast regardless if there were seven out there or eight. I think they are going to make better decisions. I fully support it,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.