HOOVER, Ala. -- Two of the SEC’s first-year head coaches sparred across the Wynfrey Hotel on philosophical grounds.
The issue is fast-tempo offenses and whether they’re a safety issue. Auburn’s Gus Malzahn called it a “joke” Wednesday. A short time later, Arkansas’ Bret Bielema retorted.
They were joining a debate that has been percolating for a while and dates back to late last season. Alabama’s Nick Saban complained after his team lost to Texas A&M that the defense doesn’t have time to substitute, a complaint that Bielema reiterated earlier this summer. The concern is that defensive players are unable to leave the field, thus increasing the likelihood of injuries.
“When I first heard that, to be honest with you, I thought it was a joke,” Malzahn said. “As far as health or safety issues, that’s like saying the defense shouldn’t blitz after a first down because they’re a little fatigued and there’s liable to be a big collision in the backfield.
“If you’re going to look at rule changes, officials, we need to look at the guys on defense that are faking injuries to slow down these pace teams. That’s where college football’s going. You see more and more teams using pace. I think you’ll see it more and more at the next level, also.”
Bielema, speaking about an hour later, offered his retort. He referred to his offense as “normal American football.”
“He thought it was a joke? Huh. I’m not a comedian. Everything that I say is things that I truly believe in,” Bielema said.
Then Bielema went into a three-minute impassioned defense of his position. He cited the health of young players and stipulated that a player will be more vulnerable to injury after playing 10 straight plays versus after five straight.
“The problem that people have is you look at it from an offensive or defensive point of view. I look at it as a head coach’s point of view, because the personal healthy and well-being of my players is paramount,” Bielema said.
Bielema then cited the change to kickoff rules and said the rules can also be changed to allow the defense to sub.
“It’s not a joke to me. It’s something that I really feel strongly about. It’s not just rhetoric,” Bielema said. “If you want to play hurry-up offense, play it, I’ll play (against) it, I don’t care. But it doesn’t mean that I cannot try to protect my players.”
More on safety
Steve Shaw, the SEC coordinator of officials, spent a few minutes Wednesday detailing the new targeting rules, which will result in automatic ejection. Shaw called the rule on targeting “the most dramatic” in his tenure as an official.
Targeting consists of the crown of the helmet and a defenseless player. It will result in automatic ejection, just like the fighting rule, according to Shaw.
“We just don’t know what happens when you get a concussion, how it affects you when you’re 50,” Shaw said. “And so that’s what we’re trying to change is that behavior. Lower your target, keep your head up, see what you hit. And I don’t think it’ll change the game or your enjoyment of it at all.”
The definition of a defenseless player has changed this year. Actually, it has been added to. The quarterback, for instance, is no longer just protected while he’s in the pocket but for the rest of the down.
“It doesn’t mean he can’t be hit. It just means he can’t be hit above the shoulders,” Shaw said.
A player charged with targeting in the first half will be thrown out for the remainder of the game. If the targeting occurs in the second half, then the player will be suspended for the first half of the following game.
“Playing time is a motivator to our players. We think this will have a pretty significant impact,” Shaw said.
But there is a corrective mechanism. If it’s determined on replay that the player didn’t target above the shoulders, then the suspension can be overridden.
Shaw went on to show replays of some plays from last year that will result in targeting calls. The first two were receivers going over the middle who were hit hard. But then Shaw showed a punt return, in which a player running downfield on punt coverage was blind-sided. That will also result in a targeting call.
Second time around
Kevin Sumlin and Hugh Freeze are both entering their second seasons as head coaches in the SEC Western Division. Much like Freeze did Tuesday, Sumlin took to the podium Wednesday doing his best to temper the sky-high expectations people have for his Texas A&M Aggies at the outset of the 2013 campaign.
“The excitement level is really, really high,” Sumlin said. “What we have had to do with our football team is separate ourselves from our fans, not from a closeness standpoint, but from a reality standpoint.”
Sumlin had no problem with students and alumni of the university allowing themselves to dream big and ponder the prospects in front of the Aggies this season. Sumlin’s more worried about making sure his team doesn’t rest on its laurels after an 11-2 season in 2012, which included handing national champion Alabama its only loss and routing former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
“As a team, we have to set the reset button,” he said. “We signed 31 new players, 31 guys over the last year that are going to come in. Many of them are going to have to help us this season as true freshman. That’s quite a large number when you have 85 guys on scholarship.”