AUBURN, Ala. — When Deshaun Davis was ejected for targeting against Vanderbilt on Saturday, a less-experienced linebacker would have to take his place.
What wasn’t as clear to the Auburn coaching staff and players following the 23-16 win was the exact meaning of the rule and how to navigate it as a defender.
“It’s getting hard to be able to coach what a good lick is,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “We’ve just got to keep coaching our guys and hopefully we’ll get better at it. It’s tough.”
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has changed how he’s taught tackling since he began coaching at Tennessee in 1980. In those days, he says, players “just tackled.”
“Now you’ve really got to spend time on it, and rightfully so, for the safety of the game,” Steele said. “The thing that’s very concerning is the head-to-head contact. That’s the primary, keep your eyes up and no head-to-head contact. There’s other things we teach, but that’s critical because that’s a huge safety issue.”
Davis’ ejection came about halfway through the first quarter when Vandy quarterback Kyle Shurmur attempted a pass to Kalija Lipscomb. Lipscomb missed the ball and was leveled by the Davis. It looked like Davis led with the crown of his helmet.
It was the second time an Auburn player was ejected for targeting this season. Linebacker Tre’ Williams was ejected for a brutal hit on LSU quarterback Danny Etling on Sept. 24.
Williams’ hit was helmet-to-helmet and left Etling bleeding and lying on the field for several minutes. That play more directly reflected the offseason rule change specifying sliding players were defenseless players.
The separate plays were puzzling to Auburn defenders.
“I don’t know what targeting is nowadays,” defensive back Tray Matthews said. “All I know is we have to hit low and if the officials feel like it’s targeting, it’s targeting. If it’s not, it’s not. We just have to continue playing football and playing physical and not thinking about any of that.”
Linebacker Darrell Williams stepped in at several positions Saturday in the absence of Davis and Tre’ Williams, who missed the game with an ankle injury.
The sophomore said even though correct technique is stressed, the rule is difficult to understand unless you’re the player in question. It’s also something players can’t focus on too much.
“Sometimes as a player, you’re not really thinking about tackling,” Darrell Williams said. “That’s why you practice it like it’s muscle memory. The coaches don’t want you to play slow, but at the same time, you have to play by the rules.”
Steele advises players to keep their eyes up when bringing down opponents and to understand what officials look for in determining targeting. After that, players just have to avert questionable hits as much as possible.
“You just have to avoid it,” Steele said. “Beyond that I’m not going to say anything, that’s above my pay grade. I’ll let someone who’s got a higher pay grade pay a higher fine than I would.”