NCAA Rule Changes Explained

The NCAA’s changes to targeting, roughing the passer and several tweaks to the replay process, especially where recoveries and inbounds status are concerned, was reviewed in depth by Big 12 Supervisor of Officials Walt Anderson. Here are some of Anderson’s comments, and some subtext on understanding the new rules.

Anderson is among the most respected officials in the game, and instituted a major culture change in the Big 12 when he was hired to oversee the league’s crews. The 62-year-old has been an NFL official since 1996, and has worked two Super Bowls. He also instituted a regiment within the conference that requires officials to maintain a certain BMI and fitness level, to avoid the mental fatigue that accompanies the physical when the body begins to break down later in games. Anderson, known as a sticker for the rules, and for those with the excellence to continually correctly apply them in every game situation, met with media for a lengthy session in Dallas today. In his plainspoken style, Anderson outlined some new NCAA rules, and gave insightful explanation as needed.

“We've got the new rules broken down into three sections,” Anderson said. “The first are changes that affect the instant replay process, the second are changes relative to targeting, and the third is the new rule change relative to roughing the passer, which protects the quarterbacks on unnecessary hits to the knee or below.”

The third is the easiest to explain. Essentially, new NCAA rules prohibit defenders from targeting the knee areas of a quarterback as long as he is in the pocket in a passing posture. Once he leaves the pocket, he becomes a runner and the same rules affecting other ball handling players apply. The judgment of targeting the knee will be whether the blow was delivered without a wrapping motion. A basic wrap around the legs or knee will not be flagged.

Anderson, using film review, also explained that “when a player is blocked and that blocking action causes him to go low into the quarterback,” the defender will not be flagged. “You'll see here the middle linebacker is going to be blitzing up the middle right here. The back will step up, and he's going to cut him, causes him to go over, and he rolls into the knee. Unfortunately in this case the Texas Tech quarterback, (Baker) Mayfield, he was injured on the play. But because the defensive player was blocked low into him, obviously it was a foul last year, but it would not be a foul this year because of that blocking action.”

The second set of significant changes regards the reviewability of a loose ball recovery, the multiple piecing together of various camera shots and angles now allowed, and how players must establish themselves as being inbounds in order to complete recovery for their respective team.

“There are a couple of rule changes that will affect instant replay that you want to be aware of,” Anderson explained. “One of them was a rule change that was not only adopted by the NCAA in February, but was also adopted by the NFL this year in the spring for the coming season, so (this will) be consistent at both levels. In the past, anytime we had a loose ball on the field of play, it was not reviewable unless the end zone was involved or the sideline. Starting this year, recovery of a loose ball is reviewable anywhere on the field.

“Now, typically when you get a pile of players, it's very often that it's impossible to determine if you have a clear recovery. But in this case, by taking in what we call piecing together various plays – this is something we do in the replay booth where the replay official will be trying to take shots that are sent to it from television and see if they can follow a pattern and be able to, from different shots, no one shot being absolutely conclusive, but a combination of shots being able to indisputably determine (the recovery). So that's a significant change from what it has been. There have been a number of plays in various years where it would have been nice, because it was evident to just about everybody who recovered the ball. Because it wasn't reviewable, we couldn't get involved in that with replay.

“The second involves really the definition of when is a player out of bounds or not. And this is a significant change relative to both the rule and how replay will get involved. The difference is for this year, when a player goes from out of bounds to inbounds, his status is now determined by where he (begins a catch or recovery), not by where he (establishes final position). This applies on catches, recoveries of fumbles, any loose ball. The player has to reestablish himself first inbounds to prevent the ball from being ruled out of bounds.”

Defensive players who are in bounds will be allowed to continue to block and push out offensive players already out of bounds as long as the defender remains in bounds. Further, the offensive player will be ruled out as long as he is unable to re-establish an inbounds position because of a defender, even if that defender is flagged for illegal blocking or other foul – i.e. a hold, facemask, etc.

“And let me just make a couple of comments relative to targeting and the change,” Anderson said. “There's no change in the targeting rule for this year in terms of what was a foul last year is going to be a foul this year. There's one clarification in a change just to help from an interpretation standpoint. And there's a major change in the enforcement part of the rule which has to do with the disqualification of a player who is called for targeting. When the rules committee first put the targeting rule in, really, now, this is going on our fifth year, the intent was to try to remove unnecessary hits to the head and neck area. We were making progress for a few years, but the rules committee felt like, as did many of the stakeholders in the game, that we weren't making sufficient progress. And that's why last year the debate and the adoption of the rule which made it an automatic disqualification was put into place.

“Now, as often happens in the debate with rules is you have to weigh what level of penalty enforcement do you want to apply. And what happened last year was the rules committee said we're going to disqualify the player if it is called. Replay can look at it. If it's not targeting, we'll remove the disqualification but the 15 yard penalty will stick. Part of the reason for that is sometimes there are other actions that occur as a part of that targeting action that could or could not be a foul. And what the rules committee did not want the replay official to do last year was to get into that much interpretation. Anticipating that there would probably be a little bit of discussion about that during the year, it was pretty evident once the season started that that was a penalty enforcement that was just having a hard time with coaches, with fans, with members of the media.”

And thus, the decision to make targeting a potential two-part call, one part being the targeting itself, the other part being basic interference, holding, etc.

“So in the offseason the rules committee looked at this and what they said was, the better option is to allow instant replay to look at the play, and if in fact if targeting was the only thing that was called, then when the replay official tells the referee there was no targeting, the flag is going to be picked up and there will be no penalty at all. The other part is that if you do have what we call combination fouls or multiple fouls, which will happen, the instant replay official can determine if in fact there was targeting. And if there was not, the disqualification would be removed. But in that case, because there was a second foul, that (yardage) penalty would still be in force.”

Anderson did note and commend the players and coaches for adapting to far less dangerous style of hits while retaining at least portions of the physicality.

“What we noticed and what the intent of the rule was, is to change the culture of how the game was being played by some players in terms of removing unnecessary hits to the head and neck area. And what we have seen and we especially saw this last year were players adapting, coaches adapting, learning in terms of the low risk indicators how to better coach up players to avoid targeting actions, and that's what we saw. There were far, far more legal hits that were often very hard and at times pretty vicious but were perfectly legal within the parameters of the rule and not a foul. And this is what we want to continue to work on this year with encouraging players to do. Now, having said that, last year, in the football bowl subdivision, there were 823 games. And in those 823 games, there were 92 targeting calls that were made. Of those 92 targeting calls, on 32 the disqualification component was removed. So for this year, if that same number ends up occurring, those 32 fouls in which the disqualification is removed, the penalty will go away as well. Last year those 32 still carried the 15 yard penalty.”

The Big 12 was, once again, asked by the NCAA to create the national targeting videos sent out to all officials and teams. The 10-minute video, available for viewing at Big12Sports.com, showcases virtually every conceivable possibility and example of plays and how they were ruled, and will be ruled this season. Anderson also said that “one of the mechanics changes this year is the officials on the sideline will flip sides at halftime. So you're going to have the old original head linesman, he will always start on the press box side which means the line judge will have his duties during the first half. Even though the head linesman and line judge will switch at halftime, the (official) chains will not switch. They'll always stay opposite the press box. The reason for that throughout the three divisions of football is because in some stadiums views of the press box might be obscured if they're on the sideline where the chains are.”

The NCAA also considered not stopping the clock after first downs, like in the NFL, in order to reduce total game times, but eventually tabled that proposal. Anderson said he believes that discussion will come up again. There have also been past thoughts of not allowing blocking more than three yards downfield before the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand, a current NFL rule. College rules state linemen can block downfield any distance, as long as they aren’t engaged with a defender more than three yards downfield on passes beyond the line of scrimmage. If the pass does not go beyond the line, like on a screen, the lineman can block any distance downfield. Anderson said he believes the college coaches enjoy that rule, and that it isn’t likely to be changed.

“We did the experiment for the eighth official (last season), and now four of the five high visibility conferences will be utilizing the eighth official this season,” Anderson said. “The Big Ten in all of their games like us, and the ACC in all of their conference games and the SEC in selected games. But all of us work at different times in trying to do things from an officiating standpoint. The SEC began the experiments with wireless systems to the officials, and that's got a lot of promise in terms of being able to expedite the review process so that we don't have a referee have to run 60 or more yards back to the headset and then run back, which sometimes takes us a little longer than the players to do that.

“So there's some aspects relative to time management of the game that we're constantly looking at to be sure it doesn't creep up to where it was a number of years ago where significant changes relative to the game clock were made to get those average times from around 3:30 back to around 3:15, which is where they are now. Our average time was 3:25. Of the five major, the high visibility conferences, I think 3:25, we were the highest. I think two of them were at 3:18, 3:19. I think the lowest was like 3:16. They're all within not too many minutes of each other, but from a time standpoint that's pretty consistent, but it is an ongoing investigation or at least a point of review each year.”


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