DURHAM – It’s legal. That’s the nicest thing any opponent can say about it.
Cut blocking, an offensive technique in which a blocker dives at a defender and intentionally tries to take out his legs, is legal in NCAA football for the time being. Georgia Tech and similar option-heavy teams live on cut blocking, and the system isn’t particularly great for making friends.
Duke defensive Kenny Anunike, who twice has suffered major knee injuries, didn’t sugarcoat his answer when asked if he had an opinion of the technique.
“Yeah,” Anunike said with a big grin, “I hate it.”
Beyond simply being a defensive lineman or conference opponent of Georgia Tech or even a defensive player, Anunike was speaking for the majority in the college football world.
The intention of cut blocking is not only a timing mechanism but a way to equal a size disadvantage. With the ball in close proximity, an offensive player – even a smaller one like a wide receiver – can use a cut block to take out a defensive player just long enough for the play to surpass him.
The technique works. Nobody doubts that – not with the Yellow Jackets a virtual lock to finish in the top five in the country in rushing yards every year.
The question is whether an offensive player should be allowed to dive at another player’s legs without penalty.
“They’re really just trying to take you out,” Anunike said. “One bad cut block could be the end of your career.”
The rule was amended in 2012 to tighten the definition. An offensive player – if he is in the tackle box at the snap, he was not in motion and he does not use the block on an engaged defensive player – may cut block.
The language makes the rule tough to understand, and Duke coach David Cutcliffe said the rule is highly confusing, even for the officials.
“It’s complex and ridiculous,” Cutcliffe said. “The rules are so hard to understand the officials can’t officiate it, in my opinion. That’s why I’m a proponent to just take it out of the game. It’s easier to officiate and it’s safer for the kids.”
The North Carolina High School Athletic Association has a similar rule in which an 8-yard-by-6-yard box around the ball (essentially the tackle box) allows offensive linemen to cut block defensive linemen.
The National Football League has tinkered with its rules regarding cut blocking and rumors have arose that the league could outlaw it all together.
Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey made it fewer than four minutes into the season before he was accidentally cut blocked by his own teammate, tearing two cruciate ligaments in his knee. The injuries will cost him the rest of the season at least.
Defensive players have to try a spastic backwards leg kick to avoid a player hunting for his knees, but for now, it’s something they have to put up with.
“You use your hands, kick your legs back, try to stay alive and go and try to make the play,” Anunike said. “Get your hands on him and drop him before he drops you.”
In practices leading up to the Georgia Tech game, the Blue Devils had coaches throw giant red balls at defensive players’ legs to simulate the block, though the Yellow Jackets rushed for 344 yards in the game and won, 38-14, anyway.
Whether the rules change remains to be seen, but Cutcliffe and the majority of ACC coaches hope the recent rule-changing trends continue.
“Right now, every rule that has been a major change in the game has been from the emphasis of player safety, so we’ll see where it heads,” Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe said it. Anunike said it. Duke linebacker Kelby Brown said it: The Blue Devils’ loss Saturday was disappointment, but the post-game feelings also included relief.
Duke came out of its game against Georgia Tech with no major injuries, and while cut blocking remains legal, that counts as a partial win.
“The cut blocking is frustrating, but something we gotta be able to deal with,” Brown said. “I feel fine. I’m just glad to come out of it healthy.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com