CLEMSON – Fall camp isn’t a real-life version of violent video game NFL Blitz. Players are not supposed to crush and crunch teammates who dare to run a route across the middle; roughhousing is reserved for comrades in a different-colored jersey.
Not as much as in the old days, though. Football found its fame in part with the bone-rattling hits highlighted in the opening montage of Madden 2003, or during ESPN segments aptly named, “Jacked up!” as former pros wearing Armani yelped and yukked it up while watching the most vicious hits in that day’s NFL games.
With medical research into concussions and other long-lasting health concerns the gladiatorial sport brings about, both the NFL and college football are cracking down on a variety of hits, whether they’re career-ending or relatively harmless.
If that’s not breaking news to Clemson sophomore free safety Travis Blanks, it only seems like it. Blanks appeared almost completely naïve to the new rule in 2013, a simple warning to aggressive defenders: hit someone above the shoulders, or hit him anywhere with the crown of your own helmet, and you’re outta here.
“I honestly won’t be thinking about that,” Blanks said. “This is an instinctive, physical, reckless game, and that’s how you have to play it.”
Players rely on their instincts to react at blink-of-the-eye speeds. So leave it to coaches to fret over the one-strike-and-you’re-out enforcement of big hits, particularly those when it’s unclear whether the defender was prowling to knock heads.
“You’re in great position to make a tackle on a guy; then all of a sudden, the offensive player lowers his center of gravity at the last second, and there’s incidental contact,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Now you’re getting thrown out. There’s a lot of gray area in there.”
In a refereeing seminar during the ACC Kickoff event last month in Greensboro, N.C., ACC supervisor of officials Doug Rhoads revealed there were 190 penalties called in 2012 for targeting a defenseless receiver or initiating contact with the domed portion of one’s helmet (the crown) – including 16 flags in the ACC.
That’s 16 ACC players hitting the showers early in 2013, based on the new rule. When Auburn cornerback Jonathon Mincy was kicked out of his own spring game, it turned heads. When Rhoads said in Greensboro he “probably would have” been in support of ejecting South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney for that viral hit against Michigan in the Outback Bowl, that sent a shock wave through college football.
“Coaches say, ‘what do I tell my players? I don’t know how to coach my players.’ You’ve just got to know: coming in to blow that guy up is no longer a part of the game,” Rhoads said. “That’s a serious neck injury, that’s a concussion issue, and that’s where the game is under attack.”
Which could, in turn, attack the way defenders like Blanks grew up playing the game since he was eight years old.
“We’re creatures of habit. When you get habitual at something, it’s hard to just switch what you do,” Blanks said. “So that will be tough, especially when a receiver is coming across the middle and you want to hit him.
“When rules change, you’ve got to comply with them. So it’ll be tough, but we’ve got to do it.”
Before the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday, Swinney touched base with the ACC officiating crew monitoring the 100 or so snaps. While Swinney was pleased at the low amount of penalties called on the field Saturday, he admitted there may have been some instances during midweek practices that would draw flags and significant consequences.
“As long as you’re targeting below the head, and you’re not hitting with the crown of your head, which is bad and dangerous for the person tackling, you should be okay,” Swinney said. “But there’s certain bang-bang plays where there’s no intent to target. Those are going to be interesting to see how they’re interpreted on gameday.”
Tigers senior linebacker Spencer Shuey said the team’s been told an ACC representative will meet with Clemson players later this week to discuss the new rules in further detail.
“We know, don’t lead with the crown of your helmet and head-to-head contact and that sort of thing,” Shuey said. “But other than that, I’m not really sure what’s subject to ejections, so I’m looking forward to the guy coming in to explain it a little better.”
Blanks was delighted to share whether Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and defensive backs coach Mike Reed have changed what they teach.
“Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” Blanks said. “They’ve continued to coach how football is supposed to be played.”