PULLMAN – It started with a big hit against Stanford, one deemed legal by the officials.
Andrew Luck’s third-down pass, Casey Locker’s pads and Chris Owusu’s upper arms all arrived at about the 30-yard line at the same time.
The ball went flying, as did Owusu. When a flag didn’t, so did the ire of Stanford coach David Shaw.
That might have been the beginning of Casey Locker’s month in football jail.
In Washington State’s three games since, Locker, a sophomore safety, has been flagged for three personal fouls, all stemming from bang-bang hits against receivers.
Is Locker being targeted? The simple answer is yes.
“I got a letter basically just stating that Casey has had some high hits and they are concerned,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said last week. “They want to make sure we discuss it with him and our team. So we did that.”
Although Locker said the coaches have talked with him about hitting lower and to not flail his arms, and he’s trying to follow those instructions, the flags have flown.
After the Owusu hit – the Stanford receiver suffered a concussion and has since received another one and may miss the rest of the season – Locker has been called for:
• A hit on Oregon State receiver Markus Wheaton, that the Pac-12, in the aforementioned letter to Wulff, stated was a correct call, though it was announced as after the play;
• A late first-half hit on Oregon’s Justin Hoffman, a flag that allowed the Ducks to attempt a 47-yard field goal. On the play Locker pulled up and tried to avoid hitting Hoffman, but was still called;
• And a fourth-down personal foul against Cal’s Keenan Allen that was also ruled after the play even though replays seemed to show Locker missed Allen after the ball flew by.
Such calls are perplexing at times.
“I’m playing the same way I’ve played since I started,” said Locker, who, at 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds, is smaller than many of the receivers he’s trying to bring down. “I don’t think they even had these flags in high school. It’s been a big emphasis in NFL and college, you’re seeing it every week now. It’s something you have to get used to and try to hit as fairly as possible, by the rules.”
Last season, the NCAA strengthened the rules for high hits, amending the targeting rule (when a player uses his helmet as a weapon) and tightening up the rule on hitting a defenseless player in the neck or head.
Both are safety issues and officials are instructed, “when in question, it is a foul,” according to the rules.
“In football you have a split-second to make a decision,” Locker said. “It’s not like I’m trying to hit someone in the head. (I’m) trying to make a play, get the guy down and sometimes you hit him a little high.”
Although Locker doesn’t feel his hits are excessive, he’s trying his best to avoid them.
“The main part that bugs me is, I’m not trying to get a 15-yard penalty on third down that prolongs a drive,” Locker said. “Last week, it didn’t mean as much (because) at least we didn’t give them the ball, (on) a fourth-down play.
“That would have been a big momentum swing, to give them the ball inside the 10-yard line, I think.”
Other than trying to make contact lower, Locker said he can’t change his game.
“If I get a chance to make a play,” he said, “I’m going to go for it 100 percent.”