Beyond the ACCtion: “Official” Start To Football Season

Rhoads says rule changes will be few, but noticeable to fans this season

GREENSBORO, N.C. ( – Doug Rhoads, the Atlantic Coast Conference Coordinator of Football Officials, is wrapping up a busy week that began with the ACC Football Kickoff and concludes with the league’s annual officials’ clinic in Greensboro. Rhoads spoke with Steve Phillips, ACC Associate Director of Communications, about this week’s events and the changes fans might notice during the season ahead.

What is the general format for the officials’ clinic this year?
This is the fourth year we have held our clinic in conjunction with Conference USA, and we have about 155 total in attendance. The clinic is the only time we get everybody together. From an ACC standpoint, we will have all 85 of our officials, the 16 replay guys and the replay communicators and the observers. Thursday is devoted strictly to replay, and then Friday everyone comes in and we have breakouts by (officiating) positions, we have things we do jointly with Conference USA on rules changes, on mechanics, we’re to line up and things like that. It’s pretty intense.

What are the significant changes fans can expect this fall in the way of officiating?
Probably the biggest news item from an ACC standpoint is that we’re going to add an eighth official. It is a change that was approved by the coaches and the ADs. The Big 12 did it last year, and the feedback we heard at our winter and summer meetings was that it was probably a pretty good idea. We’ll have an eighth official on the field in all conference games and in all games involving (an ACC team versus) Notre Dame. 

Why do you believe one more official has become necessary?
The game has changed so much – there is so much more passing, and it is so much more spread out. Then there’s the difficulty of the hurry-up offenses, managing the clock, managing the substitutions. 

The eighth official will be back in the offensive backfield, opposite the referee. He’s called a center judge – that’s the title of the position. His responsibilities include covering the ball so it’s not snapped. He’ll spot the ball on every play and look to the referee. If there are no substitutes coming in, then he gets out of there and we’re ready to play. He helps count the offense. He looks for holding, and he’s looking at it from behind the offensive line. He will also be the one to mark off penalties. That will keep our umpire – who was in the way a lot of the time, trying to back out of the defensive line – now he will stay back. 

It’s more of administrative thing. I think one of the benefits that the Big 12 found that we like is that it frees up the referee to protect the quarterback. In the past he’s had to look for holding, to see if there are chop blocks and all these other things which one guy can hardly do. Now he can focus strictly on the quarterback. He doesn’t have to look at anything else. So it’s a player safety issue.

One major benefit of the eighth official, it seems, is that he frees up the other officials to perform their traditional roles more thoroughly. Is that fair to say?
Correct. He really frees up two of the “traditional” officiating spots. The referee can now stay focused on the quarterback. The umpire now doesn’t have to move in and out of the defensive linemen to spot the ball. He is in the way, anyway, but this just puts him a little further back. 

When you met with reporters during the ACC Kickoff, you discussed a couple of NCAA rules changes, particularly in regard to targeting fouls. What is going to be different there?
On targeting fouls, they all have to be reviewed by replay because the player is ejected. Every one of them is reviewed by replay. If replay determined, ‘Hey, he didn’t get him in the head, he got him in the chest,’ then they can reinstate the player. That has been true in the past, but last year, it was a 15-yard penalty, even if the targeting part of the call was overturned. This year, we will not have the 15-yard penalty, unless the foul involved something else like roughing the passer. You might hit a quarterback late, but let’s say you didn’t hit him high. Well, it’s still roughing the passer. It’s the same way with a late hit. It still could be a late hit out of bounds, but replay might show you hit him in the chest and not the chin. And on punt where the return guy gets blown up, we might call targeting because we think they got him above the shoulders, when it fact it was lower. It’s still catch interference.
But in cases that don’t involve a late hit or additional infraction, it’s a good thing to get rid of the 15-yard penalty. 

How noticeable do you expect that change to be?
Well, there were 92 targeting calls in over 800 games last year at the FBS level. Thirty-two of those were reversed, so that’s roughly one out of three. But in those 32 that were reversed, we also penalized that team 15 yards. It just wasn’t consistent, and it won’t happen now.

How about the NCAA rules change involving low hits on the quarterback?
We’ve adapted the NFL rule where no defender can forcibly hit the passer – it actually doesn’t have to be the quarterback, it can be a halfback pass or something of that nature – but they cannot hit a player who a) is in a passing posture and b) has at least one foot on the ground. You cannot hit him at the knee or below. It is not a foul if the defender gets pushed into him, it must be forcible contact. 

It’s another player safety issue, and it’s a pretty good change. The NFL did this several years ago and has had pretty good luck with it.

There was one other, seemingly more subtle change, involving out of bounds plays …
Right. In the past, if a player was pushed out of bounds, he could leap in the air, catch the ball and land back inbounds, and it would be a legal catch. Football is the only sport that allowed that. In basketball or anything else, you have to re-establish position. Now when a receiver is pushed out of bounds and leaps in the air and catches it, he is still out of bounds. And that ball is still out of bounds, even if the player lands on the field of play. But if he lands back in the playing field first, and then catches the ball, it’s a catch. He’s re-established position.

What about if he goes out of bounds with no “help” from the defense? Is that rule still the same?
Yes. If he goes out of bounds on his own, he becomes an ineligible receiver – period. If he’s pushed out, he still has to re-establish, but he can make a legal reception. If he steps out on his own and comes back in, it’s a violation and any catch would be wiped out.

This seems to be a relatively light year in terms of rules changes. Why is that?
The NCAA rules committee only makes rules changes every other year now, and this was not a rules change year. However, they can make changes any year if it’s a player-safety issue. So these two – the tweak on the targeting rule and the low hits on the passer – were put in, but we otherwise have very few changes. We will continue to play under the 2013-14 rulebook. Next year will be a rules committee change year, and after those revisions are made, we will begin playing by the rule book for 2015-16.

As far as the rule changes regarding player safety are concerned, does evidence show it is working?
The targeting rule is a good example of that. We only had 92 called in all of FBS games last year – and that was in over 800 games played. That means coaches are teaching how to hit, players are learning how to hit and officials are calling fouls when they happen. Eventually ,we will coach and officiate it out of the game.

That’s happened in some other areas, like horse-collar tackling and chop blocks, where they become a point of (officiating) emphasis and over time they become fewer and fewer. Remember all of the hullabaloo that was made over unsportsmanlike conduct celebration penalties and that kind of stuff? We only had six penalties called for that in over 800 games last year.

Players just don’t do it anymore. It’s been a matter of changing behavior. When we first made those rule changes, we had players who were seniors who had been allowed to do it their whole careers, and then were told in their senior years they couldn’t do it anymore. Now, we have guys who have played their whole careers (with strict unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in place).  It’s nothing new to them. You get into the second and third generation, and over time it gets better. People get the message, it takes the officials out of the mix and we just go and play football.