Head injuries growing in SEC
Published: Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 25, 2012 at 11:26 p.m.
For years, the Southeastern Conference has prided itself as a hard-hitting league.
The physical brand of football played on Saturdays from schools like Alabama, Florida, LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia have resulted in unprecedented success. The SEC can extend its string of national titles to seven straight if Alabama knocks off Notre Dame in the BCS title game on Jan. 7 in Miami.
Yet with bigger, faster and stronger athletes creating more violent collisions, head injuries in the league are becoming a growing concern. SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended two players this season — Mississippi defensive back Trae Elston and South Carolina safety D.J. Swearinger — for flagrant hits to the head.
“We've taken a hard position during the season,” Slive said. “We've suspended two players for full games for hits that we felt were dangerous, hits to the head. Coaches have been sensitive to that issue. What people forget is it's just as dangerous to the hitter as it is to the hitee. We're all sensitive and conscious of it. It's an important area for us.”
In suspending the two players for one game, Slive invoked Rule 9-1-4 of the NCAA rulebook as justification, which states a player can't target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, elbow or shoulder.
“There's always an argument on the other side, but the league has given us the authority,” Slive said. “The NCAA rules mandate when there is a hit of that nature, conference review, and once we do that, we have to make decisions.”
Slive took some criticism last week for not suspending Alabama defensive tackle Quinton Dial for what appeared to be a blow on a defenseless player during the SEC title game. On the play, the 304-pound Dial rammed into Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray with a helmet-to-helmet hit after Murray threw an interception in the second quarter. SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw admitted the play should have drawn a flag.
The SEC reviewed video of the play and judged that Alabama could handle any punishment toward Dial internally.
Overall, there were 17 head injuries reported by the media in the SEC during the 2012 regular season that involved 11 different schools. Alabama, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt did not report any head injuries, though both Alabama coach Nick Saban and Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen rarely publicly disclose the nature of player injuries.
Florida's lone disclosed head injury of the 2012 season occurred when tight end Jordan Reed suffered a concussion on a helmet-to-helmet hit from Kentucky safety Ashley Lowery. Reed sat out practices during the bye week but returned in time for Florida's next game Oct. 6 vs. LSU. The hit was reviewed by the SEC office, though no suspension was handed out. Lowery also missed the rest of the Florida game with a concussion.
Florida safety Josh Evans admitted it's hard sometimes to avoid a defenseless receiver with a helmet when closing in for a tackle or to make a play on the ball.
“Definitely as a safety, coming downhill sometimes your angle is like, you are kind of leading with your head, or whatever,” Evans said. “Once you focus and you lock in, it comes with just the fundamentals of tackling, and that's something we practice every day. Coach won't let a day go by where we're not working on our fundamentals.”
Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said proper tackling is emphasized in practice.
“Those kind of moments are teachable,” Quinn said. “As a coach on the field you try to tell guys, keep your face up, or if you see a guy drop their head, you try to address it right away, keep up because there are so many bad things that can happen where you are on the ground. You hurt yourself, you hurt another player with your head being down and not seeing what you hit.”
Quinn said it's harder for younger players to break the habit of leading with the head when tackling.
“Over time and reps, you can break it out of that,” Quinn said. “Certainly you see a little bit more of it with the younger players that are coming in, that's an important job for us as coaches, not wait and let's go address it right now. We try to drill tackling a lot. And for coach, that was a big emphasis into our spring and into the season here and our preparation (for Louisville) it's a big emphasis again.”
While coaches are trying to teach proper tackling techniques for concussion prevention, concussion identification and recovery is an important issue as well. The SEC does not have a set policy on head injury management, but can make recommendations. The NCAA requires each of its member institutions to have a concussion management policy in place.
The SEC has created a task force, headed by Ole Miss chancellor Dr. Dan Jones, to gather information about best practices for member schools to handle head injuries. Jones, a board certified physician, plans to report his findings to conference leadership next summer.
Under Florida's concussion policy, updated annually, a baseline assessment is recorded for each student athlete prior to their first official practice. The baseline tests consist of:
*Post Concussion Scale (PCS) – a six-point rating scale of 22 concussion symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, headaches, sensitivity to light, etc.
*Standardized Assessment of Concussion (SAC) – a simple neurocognitive test.
*Balance Error Scoring System (BESS) – a postural stability test.
*King-Devick Test (KDT)* – a timed, number-recognition and eye tracking test.
*Immediate Post-concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT™) – a computerized neurocognitive test.
*History and physical examination, including neurologic examination.
Baseline tests are performed by trainers on the field after a head injury. Per NCAA guidelines, if a diagnosis of a concussion is made, an athlete can't return to the game that day.
“Our people do a great job as far as screening people when they come in for a baseline and working with our football team,” Florida coach Will Muschamp said. “Any sort of head injury we have, our people do a great job with making sure they are totally healthy before they get back on the field.”
But the baseline and post-concussion tests aren't foolproof. In his autobiography “Through My Eyes,” former UF quarterback Tim Tebow admitted to playing a 2009 game against LSU with post-concussion symptoms. Tebow had been knocked out of a game against Kentucky with a concussion two weeks before after taking a big hit on a sack. Doctors had cleared Tebow to play in the morning, though Tebow wrote that he started to have headaches hours before the game and that he could barely see by the end of pregame warmups. But Tebow wrote he lied about his symptoms in order to play in the game. (The New York Jets did not respond to an interview request for Tebow regarding the subject.)
“It's not a surprise,” Slive said. “Kids want to play so badly that they often times mask the symptoms and so, this is not a criticism, it is just a situation where we have to develop ways of dealing with these issues. We have to factor that into our calculations.”
Lowery tried to return from his concussion against Florida a week later when Kentucky faced Mississippi State. He told the Danville (Ky.) Advocate that he suffered from painful headaches the week leading up to the game and had trouble concentrating in class, but wanted to get back in the game.
It wasn't the right move. Lowery suffered another head injury in the first quarter against Mississippi State. That forced him to sit out the following week against Arkansas, though he returned to finish the rest of the season.
Auburn defensive back Chris Davis suffered a concussion Oct. 6 vs. Arkansas. After sitting out a game a week later against Ole Miss, Davis returned the following week and made nine tackles against Vanderbilt.
But the return proved to be too soon. Davis sat out the next game Oct. 27 against Texas A&M with post-concussion symptoms.
“Those type of things are very touch-and-go,” former Auburn coach Gene Chizik told Al.com. “He tried to come back in the Vanderbilt game and had some kind of recurring issues.”
Asked if the SEC would consider creating a mandatory time period a player would need to sit out following a concussion, Slive said: “I'm not going to get into that because there is so much going on there about concussions. We are really sensitive to it, we have people looking into it and we have to depend on our medical people.”
Quarterbacks, Defensive backs prone
Of the 17 reported head injuries in the SEC in 2012, three involved quarterbacks (Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, Missouri's James Franklin and LSU's Zach Mettenberger). Quarterbacks are often put in the most defenseless positions on the field, while SEC defensive lineman and linebackers possess the best combination of size and speed in college football.
In 2011, South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw and former Florida quarterback John Brantley were knocked out of games with concussions. In 2010, former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy was knocked out of a game after a blow to the head.
Five of the head injuries in 2012 involved defensive backs, including Texas A&M safety Steven Campbell, who left the Aggies in October due to repeated concussions in practice.
Evans said it was not uncommon for him to be foggy during the course of the game after making a hit or tackle.
“You get some hits where you get up, and you're like, ‘Where are you at?' ” Evans said. “But after a while, it tones down and you get back your senses.”
Florida defensive lineman Omar Hunter said he takes blows to the head on almost every play on the defensive line. But Hunter said he doesn't worry about head injuries or his long-term health.
“I never think about that kind of thing,” Hunter said. “If it happens, it happens. But I don't go out there thinking about getting hurt or head injuries. It's just something that defensive linemen and offensive linemen do. It comes with the territory, I guess.”
Asked if there was anything that could be changed to make college football safer, Muschamp said: “It's football. It's a physical game.”
But Evans, who leads Florida in tackles this season with 79, said he's aware of the danger of head injuries for both himself and the players around him.
“You see some guys who are hitting and will be out for a whole game,” Evans said. “It definitely makes you conscious of what's going on, making sure you try to protect yourself. Not only yourself, but the player next to you. And your opponent, making sure that you are out there making a great tackle and not out trying to make a kill shot and hit somebody for no reason.”
Reported head injuries in the SEC in 2012
TE Jordan Reed, Sept. 22 vs. Kentucky following helmet-to-helmet hit
TE Cole Trolinger, practice
FB Quayvon Hicks, practice
RG Josh Williford, Oct. 6 vs. Florida
QB Zach Mettenberger, Sept. 1 vs, North Texas
Texas A&M (2)
WR Ryan Swope. Oct. 13 vs. La. Tech, illegal hit to the head
S Steven Campbell, practice, left team on Oct. 16
QB James Franklin, Nov. 17 vs. Syracuse
RB Russell Hansbrough, Nov. 17 vs. Syracuse
Mississippi State (0)
CB Chris Davis, Oct. 6 vs. Arkansas
Ole Miss (1)
DB Senquez Golson, practice
S Ashley Lowery, Sept. 22 vs. Florida, helmet-to-helmet hit
QB Tyler Wilson, Sept. 8 vs. Louisiana-Monroe, hit to head
CB Tevin Mitchell, Sept. 8 vs. Louisiana-Monroe, helmet-to-helmet hit with teammate
FB Morgan Linton, Nov. 23 vs. LSU, head slammed to ground during run
RB Devrin Young, practice
South Carolina (1)
DT Phillip Dukes, preseason practices
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