Mike Casazza column: Joseph, WVU must adjust to tackling rules
DALLAS -- We easily and understandably forget that Dana Holgorsen, the West Virginia coach by virtue of his ascension to the top shelf of the college game's offensive minds, played defensive back in high school.
He was not good, not even by his own evaluation, but was a player who in a different era might be worried today about this new officiating focus that's trying to keep defensive players from targeting the opponent's head.
"I was not athletic enough to leave my feet and target someone," he said Tuesday at the conclusion of the annual Big 12 football media days. "I closed my eyes and grabbed their ankles. It wouldn't have affected me whatsoever. You worry about a guy like Karl Joseph, who is aggressive."
And with that, Joseph's own coach joined the list of people worried about how the rule will -- as opposed to might -- affect WVU's most valuable defensive player. He's the sort of player the Mountaineers cannot afford to have ejected from a game, or from games, but he's the type of safety who will be at the mercy of the rule in its inaugural season.
For days now, Joseph has had people ask him about it and the consequence and how both will bother him.
"It's because of the tackles people saw me make last year," said the sophomore, who last year led the Mountaineers with 104 tackles, many of them noisy ones. "I don't think it's going change the way I play, but it's going to make me think about it a little more."
What college football will witness this year is an addition that will test the discipline and the skill of the game's defenders. Officials are trying to protect the heads of defenseless receivers, passers and ball carriers on their way to the ground and victims of blindside blocks. To say whether one of those was targeted, officials will look for defenders who make high-risk decisions to launch themselves, thrust upward to create impact, strike the helmet and use the crown of their helmet to punish an opponent.
There's more to it than that, but that's the least complicated summary one could pull from a 45-minute explanation of the rule delivered Tuesday by Walt Anderson, the league's coordinator of officials. There are parameters for the rule, which would be a 15-yard personal foul that would see the offending player ejected for four quarters, but they're awfully subjective. There is also a standard review that lets the officials huddle to see if the decision to eject a player was correct.
Anderson said Big 12 officials threw 17 penalty flags for targeting a player last season. Twelve would have stood after the review. Joseph said he believes at least 50 players nationally will be ejected in 2013. Iowa State safety Jacques Washington believes around 15 players will ejected from Big 12 games.
"It depends on how lenient the officials are, but they're attacking this this season for safety reasons, so I think it'll be that, at least," Washington said. "I just pray I make it through the season."
The players don't completely understand the rule yet, and they admit as much, because they haven't been able to meet with their coaches to have it explained to them. Holgorsen said he's already asked a graduate assistant to compile Joseph's 10 biggest hits from last season. He said he'll send that to Anderson and ask him to clarify what was illegal. Holgorsen will take the feedback and use that and a visit from officials to explain the rule.
That's going help them understand it, and that will pair nicely with the appreciation defenders have for how the rule is supposed to protect players. It doesn't even come close to making this something with which defenders agree.
"I think it's just another rule in favor of the offense," Joseph said. "Sometimes you get in the heat of a game, especially when you're playing safety, and you're running full speed at someone, but now you have to think about where you have to hit the receiver. It's going to be hard, but you've got to adjust to it."
Defenders do not want to adjust. They want to tackle and intimidate, and not necessarily in that order. The rule threatens the velocity and the physicality good defenders take pride in, which in turn threatens to humble them.
"It makes the defensive guys look like wussies," Baylor safety Ahmad Dixon said.
Defender must now lower the area they target and move their heads so they're outside the spot where the contact occurs. They'll go at legs more, because it's far from the head, but that's going to injure offensive players like thunderous knees will concuss defenders. Put together, it means changing the way players have been taught to tackle. That disarms players who abandon a strategy or employ a new one or if they slow down to make sure they strike under control.
"It's frustrating to guys like me who are hard hitters and vicious players," Dixon said. "We have to slow down. We can't run to the ball as fast as we can. We can't hit guys like we want to hit them. We can't really bring the boom like we want to."
It's going to be a mess, whether in the form of slipshod tackling that turns into bogus touchdowns or the controversy that comes from ejections, but it's coming and probably fast. It's a point of emphasis this season and coaches and players expect to see the penalties and ejections early because officials are being asked to enforce the rule and to force changes so many dislike.
"This is what we do," Dixon said. "This is like me telling you, 'Hey, don't write down everything I say.' That's what you do. We hit guys. We make guys feel pain. That's what we do. When you take that away from us, it's like me telling you, 'Hey, give me your notebook,' and never letting you use it again because you wrote the wrong thing down."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.