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NFHS working toward player safety in high school football

Parskton's Ethan Murtha (23) and Miles Semmler (31) tackle Canton's Kyler Kniffen (33) during the Class 11B state title game last year at the DakotaDome in Vermillion. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

Football is the top participatory high school sport in the United States, with more than 1.1 million athletes playing in 2012-13, according to the National Federation of State High School Association.

To keep the sport continuing at the high school level, the association has approved new rules for the 2014 season. The NFHS Football Rules Committee developed a definition for "targeting," an act of taking aim and initiating contact to an opponent above the shoulders with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulders.

Targeting and its related penalty were two of 10 rule changes approved by the committee at its meeting at the end of January in Indianapolis. The rules will be in effect for the 2014 high school season.

"The number one thing in high school football is player safety," said Buck Timmins, an official assigner for the Eastern South Dakota Conference. "The NFHS Rules Committee believes that renewed emphasis on getting illegal acts out of the game will greatly improve player safety. That will help preserve the great game of football."

The penalty for targeting is 15 yards, unless the action is flagrant then other actions will be taken, according to Timmins.

In the 2013 football season, Mitchell High School Athletic Trainer Clayton Gropper said there were between eight and 10 concussions suffered by Kernel players grades seven through 12. Gropper added concussion awareness has spread, and the rule to prevent above-the-shoulder tackling will help prevent head injuries.

Timmins, of Mitchell, said he hopes coaches and players will take action in teaching proper tackling and blocking techniques.

Ryan Evans, McCook Central/Montrose football coach, thinks the rules can only improve the game, but has concerns about the future of football.

"As coaches, we fear that someday we will be limited with what we can do on the field," he said. "As long as kids aren't immediately ejected, I think it's a great thing."

At the professional and college levels, players are often ejected if a "targeting" play is made -- such as helmet-to-helmet contact or fouls against defenseless players. Officials often review these plays and can make accurate calls based on video review. High school games will not have that luxury of reviewing plays during the game.

Evans added there is no added pressure on coaches to teach the right techniques.

"We constantly review good tackling, but at the same time you want the kids to hit hard," he said. "The kids get caught up in the moment and hit hard because it's the rah rah thing to do, but obviously, it's not safe."

Matt Larson, an all-state selection and safety for the Mitchell High School football team, said the rule is a good thing for players.

"It's protecting us because both the defender and receiver can get hurt on any play," he said. "It's a good rule that should definitely be in effect in high school because a lot of players don't know how to hit properly."

Larson added it will make players more aware of where and how they hit an opponent.

With the targeting rule, Timmins said a more diligent approach to player safety must be adhered to by all game officials, players, coaches and administrators to achieve the goal of the NFHS.

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.