KANSAS CITY, Kan. – The rulebook isn’t the only thing that's changed for a college football referee in recent years. With the NCAA beginning a new two-year rules cycle this season, the way an official approaches his job also has changed. Here’s a look at that aspect of the game heading into the start of the 2016 college football season.
KEY RULE CHANGES
While the NCAA didn’t exactly reinvent the college football rule book for the 2016-2017 cycle, there are a few significant changes designed to enhance player safety along with some clarifications to existing rules.
Sliding Ball Carrier Rule
“When you see the quarterback drop back and he gets flushed out of the pocket, he’s going to run and he doesn’t want to get hit so he’ll slide feet first,” MIAA supervisor of officials Phil Laurie told reporters during the league’s football media day earlier this month. “In the past, that was not a defenseless player; now he’s a defenseless player.”
Laurie added that the play will be blown dead as soon as the ball carrier starts his slide and that the player “cannot fumble and he cannot be hit and he is defenseless. Which means that if he’s hit above the shoulders – forearm, another helmet – that is targeting,” he said.
If, however, the defender started his movement before the player slides, then he doesn’t have the defenseless player protection.
“That’s a tough call for the official, but it’s our responsibility to see both players,” Laurie said. “It’s going to be one of those rules where we all catch on pretty quick.”
The new rule could alter offensive strategies as players adjust.
“In the past, if that runner is going to slide [feet] first to get the first down, you better be careful, because now, he’s going to be short of that first down, probably,” Laurie said. “His feet might get there, but, remember the ball is going to be back against the body. Wherever he starts his slide, that ball’s dead right there.”
Blocking Below The Waist
Blocking below the waist, especially within the tackle box, will also be a major point of emphasis for officials this season. The Rules Committee, in an attempt to take out the low blocks during scrimmage plays, as they did on non-scrimmage plays in previous years.
“We’ve taken it off on all kick plays, we have no blocking below the waist during change of possession,” Laurie said. “And now with this new rule on blocking below the waist, it’s going to help us more. The tight ends are not part of the tackle box.”
Trying to get to the linebackers to block low is going to change significantly.
“If the tight end wants to block down on the defensive player, he can’t go low — that would be an illegal block,” Laurie said. “Your blocks need to be from ’10 [o’clock] and 2 [o’clock]’ — that’s the area you can block from the front. It means the defender sees me and I’m not going to end his career with a knee injury. He sees it, so he can protect himself. Where they get hurt is where they get low and they don’t see it coming; they used to call them cut blocks.”
Low Hits On Quarterbacks
The NCAA is also adopting low hits on the passer rules similar to the NFL’s rules.
“You cannot hit the quarterback low with any kind of a forcing blow by the head or the shoulder,” Laurie said.
The NCAA clarified the scrimmage kick as ‘a formation with no player in position to receive a hand-to-hand snap and with at least one player 10 or more yards behind neutral zone and a potential holder/kicker seven or more yards behind the neutral zone.’
“We have numbering exceptions which allow coaches to bring in smaller, faster players – they get this numbering exceptions on kicks and punts, but you have to be in a scrimmage kick formation,” Laurie said. “What was happening was coaches were saying that they were in scrimmage kick formation on first and second down – and we all know that they’re not going to punt on first or second down – so, they had to get this in the rulebook. Now they’re not going to use the numbering exception in that situation anymore."
A few of the other rule changes this season include:
— Coaches at the D2 and D3 level will not have access to computers or tablets on the team bench or press boxes this season; due to the timing of the rule being introduced, the implementation is being deferred to 2017. “Even though high schools have been doing it for a few years, the NCAA has been very slow to allow this to happen,” Laurie noted. “We tabled it [at the D2 and D3 levels] because we didn’t have time for our schools to get the equipment into the press box that has to be equal for both schools — home and visitor.”
— An experimental rule implemented last season gives TV crews improved sideline access, but keeps them off the field of play. ‘Hand-held cameras under the supervision of the television partners may briefly be between the limit lines and the sideline after the ball is dead and the game clock has been stopped. This exception does not allow cameras to be on the field of play or in the end zone at any time.’
— A coach who draws two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls will be disqualified from the game, putting football in line with similar rules in effect in most other NCAA sports (ie. basketball’s two technical fouls = ejection).
— The tripping rule is expanded to penalize defenders who trip the ball carrier.
HOW OFFICIATING HAS CHANGED
During his press conference at the MIAA Media Day, Laurie also drew some comparisons in the way college football game officials approach their jobs and how some of the changes affected the MIAA.
“In the old days, it was getting up in the morning, throwing your high school officiating stuff in the bag and go to work a college game with a 1:30 kickoff and you’d get there about 12:15,” Laurie said. “Things have changed. The preparation’s unbelievable as is the time commitment. We look for people with passion.”
The 64 officials Laurie supervises — split into eight crews of eight officials – come from all walks of life, including doctors, lawyers and law enforcement. The MIAA also has four officials who are not assigned to a specific crew, but are ‘swing’ officials who can work different positions.
“It gives us a chance to bring up some younger guys,” Laurie said.
The MIAA had used an eighth official in 42 of its 66 games last season on an experimental basis. Now, that eighth official, known as a center judge, will be used in all 66 games this season. The MIAA is one of three D2 leagues which has opted to use the center judge in all of its league games this season.
“The center judge sets up opposite the referee in the offensive backfield,” Laurie explained. “It makes the game much smoother, the offensive coordinator knows that the ball is going to be set and ready for play. Most of the teams these days do not huddle. The eighth official helps get the ball ready and smooth and it allows the referee to take care of all substitutions.”
As is the case in a lot of D2 leagues, many of the top officials eventually work their way up into FBS football, with several former MIAA refs now working on crews in the SEC, Big Ten and Big 12, including a former MIAA official who was recently hired by the NFL.
So, how does the MIAA restock the officiating talent pool?
“We have camps in the spring time for officials who are officiating high school, junior colleges and the NAIA,” Laurie explained. “They come to the camps and we get to look at them and get an idea of what their abilities are. We have a good relationship with the Jayhawk Junior College Conference (and NAIA leagues such as) the Heart of America Conference, the Great Plains Athletic Conference and the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference. We all do about the same thing; we share officials as they move up the ladder and it’s really been beneficial to be able to do that for the past nine years.”
Another trend worth watching is the addition of female officials to the college football ranks. On the heels of four women working on an officiating crew in a CIAA game last season, Laurie noted that a female official from Arkansas attended one of the MIAA’s camps over the summer and did a “pretty good job.”
“It’s hard for them to get experience,” Laurie told me. “The best thing they can do is go to camps and clinics throughout the summer and get some opportunities there. But, really, they need to get more of them into high school first. That’s usually the way to go first, high school, small college, then move up the ladder. The doors are open for the ladies who would like to try officiating and we should welcome them.”