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Prep Football: Rule Changes, Points of Emphasis for 2017

By Jason Van Arkel, July 31, 2017

At the end of each summer, the Iowa High School Athletic Association requires all of its football coaches and officials to watch an online rules meeting, parts of which details the rule changes and points of officiating emphasis for the upcoming season. Fans can expect to see enforcement of the following issues in high school games this fall.

RULE CHANGES

1. Blindside blocks are now (mostly) illegal. As football continues to seek safer ways to play a violent game, the National Federation of State High School Associations has moved to outlaw nearly all of the hard-hitting blocks committed on a would-be tackler who can’t see the block coming. These type of “crackback” blocks usually happen in the open field, often when the ballcarrier reverses direction, or after a turnover. The penalty is a 15-yard personal foul. The new rule doesn’t apply in the free-blocking zone (4 yards to either side of the spot of the snap, and 3 yards behind the line of scrimmage on each side). More importantly, a blindside block can still be legal, but only if the blocker initiates the contact with open hands. In short, lowering the shoulder and de-cleating an unspecting defender is now a 15-yard penalty.

2. No more pop-up kicks, at least of a specific type. The main intent of an onside kick, especially when the return team expects it, is to create mayhem and hope the ball bounces your way. The NFHS has decided that one type of kick in particular creates a situation that’s too dangerous. Kickers are no longer allowed to drive the ball directly into the ground, in such a way that the ball immediately bounces high in the air. Such a play will be penalized as a dead-ball free kick penalty. The IHSAA online rules meeting was quick to point out that the more traditional onside kick, where a ball takes two or three low bounces and then takes a high bounce, is still a legal play.

3. More definitions of “defenseless” players = more roughing the passer penalties? The NFHS added several more definitions, or examples, of players who are considered defenseless on the field. Most of them were fairly obvious (including the definition of players suffering a blindside block), but one has many coaches asking questions. “A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass” is now defined in the rule book as being defenseless. Of course, quarterbacks are often tackled in the act of throwing a pass, usually without penalty. The IHSAA online presentation attempted to clarify, since they’ve already received several questions about it. However, the clarification referred to other places in the rule book involving defenseless players, and didn’t really seem to answer the question as to what is or is not roughing the passer now. This will bear watching this fall, as high school referees in the state attempt to apply and interpret the new definition every time a quarterback is under pressure.

4. Face-guarding is just fine, thanks. Before this season, face-guarding–the act of trying to impair a receiver’s vision as the pass approaches, instead of trying to turn and make a play on the ball–was considered pass interference at the high school level, even though it’s perfectly legal at the college and pro levels. No more, said the NFHS; defenders are free to face-guard a receiver, as long as they don’t make physical contact that interferes with the receiver’s ability to catch the ball. (The rule works both ways, so in a pinch, a receiver can now face-guard a defender in an attempt to prevent an interception.) So, the next time your buddy jumps up and yells “He’s face-guarding! Call pass interference!”, kindly remind him that they have removed that from the rule book.

POINTS OF EMPHASIS

1. Responsibility is on the players to avoid illegal contact. This sounds a bit vague, but in a nutshell, while the NFHS and the IHSAA still encourage coaches to teach proper techniques, they want the players to remember that they need to take those lessons on the field. This goes hand-in-hand with point #2…

2. Eliminating illegal helmet contact. Not so much the blows to another player’s helmet here, but rather, they don’t want players leading with their helmets. No helmets up under the chin, no helmets to the sternum, no spearing in the back. They want flags thrown and personal fouls called for these kinds of plays.

3. Sideline management control. In the controlled chaos of a football game, the restricted area–that is, the two-yard white area next to the sideline–is a place where no coach or bench player should be when the ball is live. Between plays, only three coaches can enter the area to call/signal plays, and must step back before the ball is snapped. This has been, at times, a very difficult area of the field to enforce. Sideline officials are being instructed to communicate with coaches about the restricted area before the game, and to ask teams to have a designated “get-back” coach (as in, the coach that bellows at the players to get back behind the restricted area when they start to drift). The NFHS considers this a safety issue, since a ballcarrier and tackler(s) that come flying out of bounds could turn into a bowling ball knocking down the pins. Also, if an official is running down the sideline to track a play, any player or coach in the restricted area becomes an obstacle that the official can’t see. Teams get a sideline warning for a first infraction, then penalties afterwards, and expect those penalties to be more strictly enforced.

4. Enforcement of equipment rules. The NFHS has tried to bring more attention to equipment issues for a number of years, but this season, they want officials to start cracking down on all instances, whether it’s something broken, an unbuckled chinstrap, illegal equipment or anything else. The presentation said officials who see an equipment violation before the snap can stop the game to have the player or team correct it, but if they catch something and the snap is imminent, they’re supposed to blow the whistle and throw the flag for a dead-ball foul.