High school football: Should defenders worry about being penalized for hitting quarterbacks?

Shaw Media file photo
Richmond-Burton defensive tackle Dalton Wagner closes in for a sack of Genoa-Kingston quarterback Zach Butler in the third quarter in 2015 in Genoa.
Shaw Media file photo Richmond-Burton defensive tackle Dalton Wagner closes in for a sack of Genoa-Kingston quarterback Zach Butler in the third quarter in 2015 in Genoa.

Coaches and officials are no strangers to rule changes in high school football.

The National Federation of High Schools meets each February with representatives from high school athletic associations from across the nation to discuss and implement new rules for the upcoming season.

The changes are commonly met with skepticism – and occasionally annoyance – but one change in particular this year is leaving coaches and officials scratching their heads more than anything.

The confusion stems from the federation’s decision to try to clearly define a defenseless player by providing eight examples. The first one: “A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass.”

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“The very first thing I thought was that it’s going to make the job of officials much tougher,” Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. “They’re going to do the best they can, but that’s definitely a gray area.”

Prairie Ridge coach Chris Schremp shared a similar sentiment.

“There’s a lot being left up for interpretation,” he said. “I want to know exactly what referees are being told.”

At least for now, it doesn’t appear officials are being told much. IHSA assistant executive Sam Knox said, however, the rule isn’t intended to change how officials call games but rather to provide a clearer definition for violent hits on quarterbacks.

Dave Butts, president of the Northern Officials Association, agreed the NFHS is only trying to provide clarification for the defenseless player rule, but understood how the vague language left many searching for answers.

“It’s really subjective,” he said. “You’re probably going to get one answer from me and talk to 10 other officials and get maybe six or seven more opinions.”

For his part, Butts said he plans to continue to call hits on quarterbacks as he has in previous seasons.

“I’m going to continue to officiate it the way I have in the past,” Butts said. “I’m going to try to observe what the defender did. What options did he have prior to hitting that quarterback?

“Did the defender come in with the crown of his helmet or was his face mask up? Did he launch or jump at the quarterback, or did he run through him? Did it look like he slowed up a little bit? Sometimes you can see which players are the overly aggressive ones and who are trying to apply an aggressive hit. Those are the ones they want us to penalize.”

Schremp said he has no problem with the NFHS taking steps to protect players but would like to make sure the federation, officials and coaches are all on the same page before the season starts.

“Most of the time rule changes are pretty cut and dry,” he said. “It seems like with these there is a lot of gray area in it. It’s up for a lot of interpretation to the referees on the field. I’m really interested to see how they’re going to call things. I would really like to see some film to say what’s legal and what’s not.”

Among other rule changes, the NFHS elected to outlaw pop-up kicks on onside attempts, meaning kickers no longer will be allowed to drive the ball directly into the ground. Any pop-up kick will be penalized as a dead-ball free-kick infraction.

Additionally, the federation established a new definition for blindside blocks.

“[A blindside block] involves contact by a blocker against an opponent who, because of physical positioning and focus of concentration, is vulnerable to injury. Unless initiated with open hands, it is a foul for excessive and unnecessary contact when the block is forceful and outside of the free-blocking zone.”

A blindside block will cost the offending team a 15-yard penalty.

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