The 2013 football season begins in earnest Thursday night, with marching bands, nachos and eye-popping collisions.But will it be the same game fans love?New penalties for targeting fouls could give the game at the college and high school levels a different, tamer look, albeit in the name of safety for student-athletes.The new penalties, adopted first by the NCAA rules committee this summer, and appropriated by the UIL and TAPPS, are designed to limit serious injuries to players, especially to the head and neck. This season, players will be ejected when they initiate contact with the crown of their helmet or target the head or neck area of a defenseless player.Most coaches aren’t too concerned with what some might consider the vague nature of what now constitutes a legal hit. TCU coach Gary Patterson says he’s been teaching his defense to tackle the legs for the last 10 years. But Patterson concedes that mistakes could be made by officials trying to make the correct call in real time, even with the help of instant replay.“It’s easy, we tackle legs,” he said. “We want young people to be protected. I don’t know a coach that doesn’t want that. I don’t know of a coach that would teach targeting. The key is it’s such a fine line of protection, and then keeping the game we’re all used to. That’s the hard part about the targeting rules. The biggest thing is people using common sense.”In NCAA games, infractions will bring an ejection for the remainder of the game. If the infraction happens in the second half, the player will also be ejected for the first half of the next contest. The UIL penalty does not carry over into the next game.Walt Anderson, the Big 12 coordinator of officials, said players will need to lower their tackle zone to avoid being penalized. “I’m afraid it’s going to result in a lot more knee injuries,” Fort Worth Nolan Catholic coach Joe Prud’homme said. “We’ve taught them that they can’t hit the head. Just go a little lower, keep your eyes up. They’ll just have to have a lower angle.”Southlake Carroll receiver Keaton Duhon said it’s great that officials want to prevent concussions and other head injuries but fears “more defensive players will be targeting knees to prevent getting ejected.”One misconception is that helmet-to-helmet contact is off-limits. “The unnecessary hits to the head are when the player is intentionally targeting the head area or using the crown of the helmet to target the opponent,” Anderson said.The speed of the game is so fast, especially at the college level, that players are reacting with instincts. TCU defensive end Jon Koontz knows the difference between a legal and illegal hit, but wonders if in the heat of the battle everyone will remember.“We know what’s allowed and what’s not allowed, but when you’re playing the game it’s all happening so fast so that’s not really something you’re thinking about as you’re going to make a tackle,” he said. “You tackle the way you’ve been taught to tackle and you hope your helmets don’t go head-to-head.”For Patterson and area high school coaches, it goes back to fundamentals.“When they leave their feet is usually when they get into trouble with the targeting,” Fort Worth Arlington Heights coach Phil Young said. “We teach guys to drive with their feet and when you drive with your feet you’re not launching yourself. There’s a little bit of physics to it. If you’re still on your feet it’s hard to throw yourself into that position.”Although illegal hits are less frequent at the high school level, Young said, it’s obvious that young players take their cues from what they see on television. ESPN usually doesn’t show highlights of leg tackles at the line of scrimmage.“A lot of times now our high school players look at what they see on TV and guys that are doing it for a living, a lot of them aren’t doing a lot of tackling, they’re doing a lot of hitting,” Young said. “They run into guys and try to knock them down. At that level maybe they’ll get away with it. That’s not how we want to teach our boys how to tackle properly. So we have to correct some mistakes they see on TV and think a lot of times that’s the correct way to tackle.”Young and Arlington Martin coach Bob Wager agreed that the changes are good for the health of the players and that the game will adjust with the times.“Any time you have rules changes early on in that first season it becomes a point of emphasis for those that officiate games, and rightfully so,” Wager said. “That’s how we teach, that’s how we learn. But at the same time, we’re playing the most combative sport that’s ever been invented. That’s my opinion. I think all the practice and game regulations that have been made are in the players’ best interest. So if it helps keep kids playing the game and helps keep kids healthy I’m all for it.”Said Patterson: “You can tweak things and make it better without something bad happening. But you’re not going to see the ones where everybody goes ‘Oooh, aaah.’” Correspondent Travis L. Brown contributed to this report.
Stefan Stevenson 817-390-7760 Twitter: @FollowtheFrogs