Here's a guide to targeting in college football and the NFL


The targeting penalty has been at the center of controversy for years, and after the first two weeks of the college football season, coaches, players and fans alike have raised questions about the inconsistencies they've seen from officials in judging the rule.

USC kicker Parker Lewis was ejected for targeting on the opening kickoff of the Trojans' loss to Stanford after lowering his head while tackling the kick returner.

The Ohio State Buckeyes made targeting headlines in both their Week 1 victory over Minnesota and their Week 2 loss to Oregon. In both outcomes, the Buckeyes drew favorable no-calls from the officials.

Four Ole Miss players were ejected for targeting in the Rebels' Week 1 win over Louisville, prompting head coach Lane Kiffin to take a shot at the Big Ten officiating crew working the game.

But what exactly is targeting, and why does it result in an automatic ejection? Is there any way to eliminate the margin of error when officials review the foul?

Here's everything you need to know about the NCAA rule, how it differs from the NFL one and how it impacts both college football players and those officiating them every Saturday.

What is the rule on targeting in college football?

The 2019 NCAA Rule Book defines targeting as when a player "takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or legal block or playing the ball."

The NCAA targeting rule bans any forcible contact leading with the crown of the helmet or to the head or neck area of a defenseless player.

What are some examples of targeting?

Some indicators of targeting include but are not limited to:

  • A player leaving his feet to attack an opponent by an upward and forward thrust of the body to make forcible contact in the head or neck area
  • A crouch followed by an upward and forward thrust to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area, even though one or both feet are still on the ground
  • A player leading with helmet, shoulder, forearm, fist, hand or elbow to attack with forcible contact at the head or neck area
  • A player lowering his head before attacking by initiating forcible contact with the crown of the helmet.

What is the penalty for targeting in college football?

The penalty for targeting in college football is 15 yards, and the player who committed the foul is ejected. If a player commits three targeting fouls in the same season they are subject to a one-game suspension.

Do you get disqualified for targeting in the NFL?

According to the NFL rulebook, targeting occurs if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent.

The penalty for targeting is also 15 yards, and players may be disqualified. The penalty doesn't warrant an automatic ejection as it does at the NCAA level.

In the NFL, the penalty for targeting (fine, suspension, etc.) is at the discretion of Commissioner Roger Goodell.

What is the NFL rule on targeting?

The NFL targeting rule prohibits hits with the crown of the helmet but not all hard hits to the head.

The NFL makes an exception for inadvertent or incidental contact with the helmet and/or facemask.

When was the targeting rule implemented?

The targeting rule was implemented in 2008 to prohibit forcible contact using the helmet and to protect defenseless players.

Former NFL Referee and Sunday Night Football rules expert Terry McAulay was the Coordinator of Football Officials for the Big East and subsequently the American Athletic Conference from 2008 to 2017. McAulay says the targeting foul was introduced in college football in response to pressure from Congress to curtail concussions, head and neck injuries in football.

"There was a point where Congress called in the commissioner of the NFL and a lot of the college commissioners to address concussions, head, neck and spinal injuries. That was a wake-up call for everybody concerning player safety," McAulay said.

At first, McAulay says not all coaches were on board with enforcing the rule or coaching proper technique. From 2008 to 2013 the commissioners of each conference had to deal with the backlash from the infractions committed each week. They decided that the foul was to be judged on the field instead of after the game, and in 2013, targeting was made an automatic ejection in college football in addition to a 15-yard penalty.

"Without an automatic ejection, the issue would be on the commissioner's desk on Monday morning. Commissioners don't want it on their desk Monday morning. You can only possibly imagine how painful that was to them, so they decided that it was going to be judged on the field and if there was replay involved, that was the final adjudication," McAulay said.

Why does targeting in college football result in automatic ejection?

The automatic ejection was effective in detailing the importance of teaching proper tackling techniques but led to some discrepancies in officiating.

"They felt they needed to do something drastic. It needed to be an automatic targeting foul. Players had to be disqualified. And, from the moment I heard about it, my concern was, 'We're going to throw out players who don't deserve it,'" McAulay said.

Do college players ejected for targeting have to leave the field?

When the targeting rule was first implemented in 2013, college players were required to head to the locker room after being ejected for targeting. In 2020, the NCAA amended the rule to permit players to remain in the team area.

What changes have been made to the targeting rule?

In 2016, the NCAA voted to expand the use of instant replay in targeting calls. Replay officials were now able to not only determine if targeting occurred, but also whether or not it was intentional. In the past, the replay official could only look at targeting in the head or neck area, at the point of forcible contact with the crown of the helmet. But with the addition of replay, officials could now stop games and create targeting fouls that were not originally called on the field.

"At the end of the intervening years, they made some modifications. They changed it so replay could create the foul." McAulay said. "They didn't want players who absolutely committed a foul to go unpunished. And subsequently, they made a good rule change where if replay couldn't confirm all aspects of the targeting rule then the players is going to get to stay in the game and the foul is going to be reversed or not created."

McAulay proposes a two-tier model of targeting

In 2015, McAulay proposed a two-tier model of the targeting rule, based on basketball's two-level technical foul.

"Just like in basketball when you have a flagrant one and flagrant two. Targeting would have a level one and a level two. A targeting level two is a clear shot that is absolutely dangerous. Puts the player that's being hit or doing the hitting at significant risk of injury and there are no mitigating factors," McAulay said.

Hits on quarterbacks would fall in this category: when a defender has an unobstructed path to a quarterback who is stationary, and a number of ways to make the tackle, yet still makes helmet-to-helmet contact.

"He can form tackle, he can wrap up, he can put his shoulder in the chest. All these things are available to him and yet he makes forcible helmet-to-helmet contact. That would be targeting two, automatic ejection, 15-yards, obviously subject to review," McAulay said.

The targeting one foul would be when the contact is forcible but doesn't appear dangerous or significantly damaging to either player. That would result in a 15-yard penalty but not an ejection.

McAulay believes that given the recent events of the past two weeks and in years past, such as the 2021 college football playoff semifinal between Ohio State and Clemson, there are enough examples that a change should be made.

"I think we have enough experience to really separate those. Sure there's going to be discussions on where those fall, but I think you would see less consternation than you would with every player just automatically being thrown out." 

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