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LSU players know what to do if their helmet dislodges in play: Stop playing

BATON ROUGE, La. -- From their earliest introduction to the sport, football players are taught to keep competing until the whistle blows, signifying that the play is over.

There are times, however, where doing so can be costly. LSU’s Lewis Neal and Jerald Hawkins learned that lesson the hard way earlier this season, when they were both assessed personal fouls for continuing to play after their helmets came off in the middle of a down.

“From high school, pee-wee, little league, nothing -- I’d never heard of that rule,” Hawkins said.

Most fans and players would probably say the same of the penalty that entered the NCAA rulebook in 2012. But it exists, and LSU’s players learned in the back-to-back games where they were hit with flags for the helmet-off infraction that the 15-yard assessment is the same as if they committed a much more malicious act.

“In the moment, I wasn’t thinking that and I didn’t know that that was going to be a personal foul,” Neal said. “I didn’t know the consequences. If I’d have known the consequences, I wouldn’t have done it.”

The Tigers can now laugh about what they should have done instead -- LSU still won both games -- but it raises interesting questions. If your helmet becomes dislodged in the middle of a play, when you’ve been trained your entire football career to play until the whistle, how do you rewire your brain to just quit competing while the action continues around you?

Do you curl up in a ball on the ground? Raise your hands over your head and stand perfectly still? Putting the dislodged helmet back on and returning to the play is also against the rules, by the way.

Hawkins and Neal both said they’ll simply stop if it happens again.

“The thing about it is it can’t happen again now that I went through it,” Neal said. “That’s my thing, we’ve got to focus because after I did it, nobody else should make that mistake. It’s pretty obvious.”

Hawkins agreed, adding, “I have to stop. I’ve just got to disengage, got to get out of the way. I can’t keep on with the play. That’s what cost us 15 yards.”

Some teammates will believe that when they see it, however.

“[Hawkins] likes to get after it too much, so there’s no way he’s going to stop,” chuckled linebacker Deion Jones.

Hawkins’ actions in the Eastern Michigan game give some credence to Jones’ prediction. Neal had been hit with the penalty a week earlier against Syracuse, but Hawkins kept blocking Eastern Michigan’s blitzing linebacker Amos Houston for a full seven seconds after Houston’s hand knocked Hawkins’ helmet off his head.

As per usual, the LSU left tackle’s goal was to prevent the man he was blocking from hitting quarterback Brandon Harris.

“I should have known better, but when you’re in the heat of the moment, the heat of the game, you really don’t care,” Hawkins said. “You’re just worried about handling your job and making sure the guy behind you is safe.”

Eastern Michigan eventually declined the penalty because it made a third-down stop on the play.

Against Syracuse, Neal’s helmet popped off as he was breaking away from center Rob Trudo in the middle of the field while rushing quarterback Zack Mahoney. Neal tracked him down along the sideline and combined with Tre’Davious White for a sack, but was then hit with the 15-yard penalty to extend the Orange’s drive.

“It’s a lesson learned and I know what I’ve got to do,” Neal said. “Just stop. Just let him go.”

The Tigers don’t disagree with the rule, or with its severity. They understand that it is intended to keep them as safe as possible, even if it requires them to act in opposition to their football instincts.

“It's a smart rule. It really is,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “There are a lot of really brave, courageous guys that would go rough and tumble in there and really get hurt. That's what you don't want to have happen.”

Said Jones: “If you keep playing and you get hit helmet-to-head, that’s terrible. No one wants that.”

But it’s one thing to discuss the rule rationally, outside the confines of competitive play. It’s another to have the light bulb switch on as soon as a helmet dislodges during game action and realize that you have to stop.

That will be the true test for any player, who will then have to decide between committing a penalty or allowing his teammates to play 11-on-10 for the rest of the down.

“They tell us to just fall down and get away from the play,” Jones said. “But when everything’s like going, it’s hard to be like, ‘Oh wait, I have to stop.’ ”