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NCAA Rules Changes Would Allow 10 Seconds for Substitutions, Modify Targeting

Some of the coaches are using safety concerns as a cover for their inability to change. But that doesn't mean that those safety concerns aren't valid -- or that there's no way to address them without ruining football

Streeter Lecka

After months of protest during the offseason and games, the NCAA has finally acted to change its dumb targeting rule. You know, the one where a player could get called for a foul that didn't occur, could have the foul overturned, but then still see his team penalized the 15 yards for targeting? Yeah, the one. The rules committee recommends changing it.

The committee recommended that if the instant replay official rules that a disqualification should not have occurred, and if the targeting foul is not accompanied by another personal foul, the 15-yard penalty for targeting should not be enforced.

Look at that. The NCAA being responsive, doing something that everyone's not going to hate -- what do you mean, there's another rule they want to implement?

The committee also recommended a rules change that will allow defensive units to substitute within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock, with the exception of the final two minutes of each half, starting with the 2014 season.

That shouldn't be controversial, right?

Yes, the NCAA rules committee decided that today was the right day to wade into the war over the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, and it didn't take long for some of the coaches who like using tempo to respond. They did so in a hurry, you might say.

There's an element of truth in Mike Leach's complaint. Many of the coaches that have complained about the HUNH -- Nick Saban comes to mind, but he's far from alone on this -- are doing so because they don't want to have to adjust the way they coach defense to account for the new offensive schemes. And if you had developed a defense over decades that had helped you win three of the last five national championships, and had seen a chance at a fourth national title in that stretch taken away by a team running the HUNH, you'd probably feel the same way.

That doesn't mean there's nothing to the argument that the HUNH raises safety concerns. If you assume a relatively constant rate of plays per injury, and increase the number of plays that are run in every game, simple math dictates that there will be more injuries in a given season of college football. And we don't see all the injuries on the football field, as researchers are learning.

But those seemingly routine hits can lead to brain abnormalities that linger for at least six months, a Cleveland Clinic-led study involving local college players has found. The study, published online late Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, revealed that players with the most head blows showed evidence of damage to the brain's protective barrier, and changes in brain structure and function.

When you combine the larger number of plays with one of the key advantages of the HUNH -- that defensive players aren't allowed to substitute as much, and so some players are on the field for more plays -- there's reason to believe that the new systems could increase the number of injuries. None of that is proven, of course, but it's a concern. And in an era when football is increasingly coming under fire for safety concerns -- which led to the terrible targeting rule to begin with -- it's not completely outrageous for the NCAA to try to be proactive.

The counterargument is that lowering the number of plays could be the reason for a series of other rules in football: Getting rid of overtime, allowing for fewer minutes in a football game, only playing three quarters, etc. But the rules committee says that most HUNH teams don't snap the ball within 10 seconds, which means that cutting back on the number of plays might not be the main reason for the change. The main reason appears to be allowing substitutions, which would hold down the number of snaps for which each player is on the field, lowering the number of blows to the head (in particular) that those players take.

(Even so, doing away with a method of determining which team wins the game, and changing the fundamental characteristics of the game, is a far greater overhaul than simply allowing defenses to substitute. And surely even those comparing more radical rules changes to the proposals announced Wednesday know on some level that there's a great deal of difference between the two.)

All of this could end up being sound and fury signifying nothing. Another committee gets a crack at the rules next month before they go into effect. And there's going to be plenty of sound and fury until then.

Personally, I'd hate to see the HUNH go away; it's fun to watch. But common sense says that it increases the threat of injury -- and I'm not even sure that the rules changes proposed Wednesday would do away with the HUNH. Maybe these rule changes can ease those concerns without hampering the sport's most exciting offense too much. In which case, what the rules committee is talking about might even be more of a step forward than changing the targeting rule.