Big 12 Teams Will Be Able To Play Faster

For the last several years I have gone with Dave Hunziker, play-by-play voice on the Cowboys Radio Network, to the College Football Officiating West/Big 12 Football Officials Clinic in Irving, Texas. It is a mass gathering of officials from the Big 12, Mountain West, Southland, SWAC, MIAA, Rocky Mountain, and Lone Star conferences as they discuss issues for the upcoming college football season.

With Walt Anderson, an NFL referee who serves as the Coordinator of Football Officiating for the Big 12, and veteran officials like former NFL official David Warden, the Big 12 Coordinator of Replay Officials, Phil Laurie with the MIAA, and helpers like NFL referees Walt Coleman III and Bill Leavy in attendance it is always a great learning experience. Heck, even NFL officiating legend Red Cashion was there.

This year's event was extremely important to attend as a couple of major officiating factors will come into play this season. One is a game changing beef up of an already enforced rule and the other is a change in the roster for football officials.

Anderson encourages media attendance to attend, among those at the event this year were Hunziker and myself, Texas radio voice Craig Way, Baylor radio voice John Morris, TCU radio voice Brian Estridge, Berry Tramel from The Oklahoman, and Rick Gosselin of The Dallas Morning News.

In 1983, major college football went to seven officials working their games. Back then every team used a pair of wide receivers and a tight end in its formations on most downs. Some didn't, but it wasn't because they were spread out with four or five receivers. It was because they were running power or option offenses where they wanted three backs in the backfield.

Anderson likes to say the game has changed a lot since then and that seventh official was brought in to give extra eyes on the passing game and perimeter. Back then the perimeter was inside the numbers, but now receivers routinely line up just inside the out of bounds line and they are spread all across the field.

The tempo of the game is lightning fast with teams wanting to snap the football quickly between plays, often just 8 to 10 seconds after it has been spotted.

The seven-man crew is outdated, and Anderson and the Big 12 are doing something about it.

This season the Big 12 will experiment with an eighth official. He will be called the alternate referee and he will line up in the offensive backfield opposite the referee. If a quarterback is right-handed the referee lines up on the right side, meaning the alternate referee will line up on the left side of the backfield. For a left-handed quarterback, the two positions would be flipped.

During all of the Big 12 spring football games the officiating crew used the eighth official. In Stillwater on April 20, Anderson served as the alternate referee and wore a camera to show coaches and administrators what that official would do.

At the Big 12 Officiating Clinic, I sat in on a meeting of all Big 12 referees and alternate referees led by Anderson and detailing mechanics of the position.

Before we get into those mechanics it might be better to get into some theory. I visited with Mike Defee and Greg Burks, two of the senior and highest-rated referees in the Big 12. Both gladly welcome the new position on the crew and one of the biggest reasons is the speed of the game.

"Huge change, when I came in at first the Big 12 was a rushing conference and seven (officials) was plenty. Then teams began passing more and we went for an average of 150 plays a game, which was a lot, to 235 to 245 plays (including special teams), and with the advent of the eight official I won't be surprised if we top out at 300 plays a game," said Burks.

"That will be great for the fans, great for the game because of the offense it creates. It is really hard to officiate that with seven. What I was doing as a referee was spotting the football and was not able to keep track of substitution pattern. It will create more balance in the game, and for the defense more equity because I will be able to better see when the offense substitutes and allow the defense that opportunity to match up. It is going to open things up and let the teams go as fast as they want to go."

Defee added, "I think it is going to be tremendous for a number of reasons. Number one, it is going to allow the referee and the umpire to get back to a more normal mode of officiating where the alternate referee is going to work the football.

"We'll be able to get into our pre-snap routine sooner, and a pre-snap routine is normally a six- to eight-step process. (With the faster tempo of the game) we've had to get our pre-snap routine down to more of a three-step process and we were skipping a lot of things. This will help us get back to a more normal mode of officiating.

"The other thing is from a player or a team standpoint is this is going to allow them to play at a faster pace providing they don't substitute. If they substitute then we have to allow the defense to substitute and on the betterment for the defensive team we are going to have better opportunity to see if the offense does substitute and then allow the defense the opportunity to match up. It is going to be beneficial to both sides."

We've shared where the new official will stand on each play, so what are his primary responsibilities? His first is to spot the ball and get it placed on the turf so that it is ready for play as soon as possible. In the past that duty was performed by the umpire, but now the umpire and the referee can worry about more game management, and as Defee said the substitution pattern.

During plays the alternate referee will watch the offensive backfield, like the referee does as the offside (to him) offensive line. Then as the play advances, he will pick up the quarterback if it is a pass play and the pressure develops.

The biggest obstacle in his position will be setting the ball for play and getting out of the way when working games with some of the conference's really high tempo offenses, such a Baylor, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, West Virginia, and TCU. OU can go fast too and Texas is promising that it will play that way this fall.

The alternate referee will be used only in conference games and games involving Big 12 teams with CFO West-affiliated conferences such as the Mountain West and Southland conferences.

Oklahoma State's first game with an eight-man crew will be the home opener with Lamar out of the Southland Conference, with J. Taylor scheduled to be the alternate referee.

Anderson decided to go with veteran Big 12 officials from other positions to be the alternate referee, and train them rather than bring in new officials. An example is Walt Coleman IV, a third generation official, who's dad is an NFL referee.

Walt Coleman III assists Anderson with the clinic and grading officials during the season. The younger Coleman has been a Big 12 line judge since 2006.

"I think it is really exciting to be on the forefront of something new and whether it goes any further nobody knows, but it is exciting to be the first group to do it," said Coleman. "It will be interesting to see how it impacts the game and what it means going forward."

With the talk throughout summer from SEC coaches like Nick Saban and Bret Bielema regarding the speed of offenses and the potential for injuries with players getting tired and not being able to sub or the game simply going too fast this experiment by the BIg 12 may not be greeted warmly in some conferences. However, coaches like MIke Gundy, Art Briles, Dana Holgorsen and Kliff Kingsbury will be very happy with Coleman and the other new alternate referees.

"The offenses now in the Big 12 are built on speed and pace of the game and one thing the new eighth official is going to allow us (officials) to do is do our jobs with more focus and at a higher level, but we're not going to impact the speed of the game at all," explained Coleman.

"Teams will be able to go as fast as they want and we'll have the ball down and placed and ready for them to go. As fast as they want to go, we'll be able to manage that pace."

That's great news for new OSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich because he wants to go really fast and he won't have to keep buttering up the officials like he did up in Pennsylvania.

(This is the second of a two-part series on some very important changes ahead this season in college football that have to do with the officials. The first was on targeting (click here to read the story) and will pertain to all of college football.)

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