SEC’s New Strike Zone (No Not Baseball)

Author: Hunter Ragland

At SEC media days on Wednesday, it was announced that conference officials instituted another rule change concerning the manner in which defenders can legally tackle opposing players. In short, the “strike zone,” explained by SEC Coordinator of Officials Steve Shaw includes the area above the knees and below the neck. This is the area where defenders will be required to tackle offensive players in passing positions. If players violate this targeting rule, they will be penalized. According to Shaw, the penalty yards will be assessed whether the hit occurred inside or outside of the pocket. Speaking with ESPN, Shaw believes “this rule change, I think, will create the player behavior change” needed for extra protection of the quarterback. During the 2013-2014 season, both Georgia’s Aaron Murray and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger sustained devastating injuries from hits below the knee and because of this, the SEC seems even more committed to protecting future quarterbacks.

SEC defenses, typically known for their aggressive style of play, may find the rule change challenging. Ultimately football is an extremely fast game with bodies flying all over the field. While a concerted effort for players to strike their opponent in the appropriate region should be expected for the safety of players, it is unreasonable to believe players are never going to hit below the knee. While playing at top speeds, defenders often find themselves at awkward angles and must strike whatever part of the body they can in order to stop the offensive players progress, usually without any sort of malicious intent. This reality could pose challenges for players and officials.

Conversations concerning the new “strike zone” rule remind college football fans about last year’s controversial rule regarding targeting a defenseless player. During the 2013-2014 season if called for targeting, the offending player was ejected and the team was penalized fifteen yards. If a player committed a targeting foul in the second half of a game, they were subject to suspension the first half of the next game. While many agreed that the targeting rule decreased the number of malicious hits, the controversy stemmed from the way in which the penalties were mitigated. Each time a targeting penalty was called on the field, officials in the booth reviewed the play to confirm targeting. If the call was upheld, the punishment stood. However, in cases where officials deemed the play a clean hit, the ejected player was reinstated, yet the 15-yard penalty to the team stood. This left many fans, coaches and players complaining that the rule made no sense. If a play was a clean hit and the player returned why would the 15-yard penalty stand? Initial mistakes caused a number of teams to be penalized in critical situations and in some cases changed the course of the game.

During the offseason, the officials reevaluated the rule and made appropriate changes. The targeting rule remains essentially the same, however, if booth officials overturn the hit, the penalty is removed. This should alleviate concerns that players and teams will face penalty yards when in fact the hit was within the rules. The SEC and football at all levels are determined to make the game safe without compromising the aggressive nature of the game. It will be interesting to see if the new “strike zone” rule has similar implications in its infancy or if this time they got it right.

Ramik Wilson hits Vanderbilt wide receiver Jonathan Krause during a college football game between Georgia and Vanderbilt on October 19th, 2013. Although clearly within the strike zone, Wilson was called for targeting.