Rogers Redding, the national coordinator of College Football Officiating, provides insights about rules changes and the mindset of college football referees. The CFO is the national professional organization for all football officials who work games at the collegiate level.

As the playoffs in Divisions II and III and in the Football Championship Subdivision move toward their final games, and with the bowl games beginning very soon, this is a good time to take stock of the rules for targeting and their impact on the game.

Targeting became a part of the NCAA rules in 2008. At that time the penalty was the same as for any other personal foul—15 yards and an automatic first down. The NCAA football rules committee made minor changes to the language of the rule along the way, with nothing major until last year. 

By 2013 the committee had become so concerned about the increasing number of concussions and other head and spinal injuries, it took a bold step forward by including
automatic disqualification from the game in the penalty. If a player commits a targeting foul in the second half, he must sit out the first half of his team’s next game. The ruling is subject to review in games where Instant Replay is used. While this was seen in some quarters as an overly expensive penalty, the committee felt that it needed to take a strong stand in trying to remove this dangerous foul from the college game.

There remains some misunderstanding about the rule, as we continue to hear people use the term “helmet-to-helmet contact.”  But note:
the rule does not mention helmet-to-helmet contact. Incidental helmet-to-helmet contact happens many times in a game as a matter of course, but this is not illegal. What is prohibited is (a) targeting action and forcible contact with the crown of the helmet and (b) targeting action and forcible contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent—no matter what part of the body the player uses. It could be the shoulder, forearm, etc., as well as the head. 

By “targeting action and forcible contact” we mean such things as a launch, an upward thrust out of a crouch, and similar actions which signal that the player is trying to do more than make a good football play.

The rule is having a very positive impact on the game. We can clearly see that players are being coached to change their approach: they are lowering the “strike zone” to make a tackle or defend against a pass, they are getting the head out of the action, and they are making more “heads-up-wrap-up” tackles. While targeting fouls continue to take place, and we as stakeholders need to remain diligent, our game is becoming safer because this rule is leading to changes in behavior.