Coach’s Corner is a weekly feature at Outside the Huddle written by Kevin Merz, former Bishop Dwenger quarterback and North Side offensive coordinator.
High school football is an ever-evolving game, from the schemes we see teams run, the speed the game is played at and the stadiums teams call home.
The rules of the game get tweaked on a yearly basis and sometimes there are some minor changes that can have large impacts on area program.
High school football has a unique set of rules when compared to the college and professional game. The following eight items are rules, or little “behind the scenes” things, that take place during the Friday night games you attend that you may not be aware of.
Hopefully a little clarification on these items may help you better enjoy your experience the next time you choose to attend a game.
1. INTENTIONAL GROUNDING
Now that I am a fan attending games, this is perhaps the most misunderstood rule I hear complaints about in the stands on a weekly basis. “He was out of the pocket! That’s not intentional grounding” is a phrase screamed at officials each and every game.
However, this isn’t correct.
At the college and pro level, as long as you are out of the pocket you can throw the ball past the line of scrimmage wherever you want to get rid of it when under pressure from a defensive player. In high school however, it does not matter if you are standing in the heart of the pocket or 30 yards right or left of it, the ball MUST land near an eligible receiver.
I learned this the hard way in 2005 during the sectional championship against South Side as I scrambled to my right side and let a beautiful spiral go about 20 yards deep into the visiting stands at Zollner Stadium, thinking I had avoided a sack and gotten rid of the ball with a smart decision. The penalty flag was thrown for intentional grounding and I was reminded that even though I was out of the pocket, in high school, the ball must land near an eligible receiver, not near an opposing fan in the 12th row!
2. ILLEGAL FORMATION
I had someone ask me once, “Why does that one receiver always put up his fist before the snap, that seems disrespectful to the corner he is facing and he does it every play!?”
The receiver in this situation isn’t flexing on the corner guarding him, he is actually putting a fist up as a signal to the official asking if he is “on the line” of scrimmage or “off the line.”
Before the snap, offenses need seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage each and every time. We will assume your offense always has five linemen for each play so that means naturally we need two receivers to be on the line as well.
The receiver you see putting his fist up is double checking with the official that he’s supposed to be on the line (by putting his fist straight out in front of him) or off the line (by making a fist and putting it behind his back) to ensure that the offense has seven, and only seven, guys on the line before each snap. If there are only six guys correctly on the line, or one too many and a team has eight on the line, they will be flagged five yards for an illegal formation or (illegal procedure) penalty for not being correctly lined up before the play starts.
3. DEFENSIVE PASS INTERFERENCE
Pass interference is a call that even the most novice of football fans always seems to have a loud opinion on as officials sort out what just happened.
There are two things to keep in mind when referring to pass interference in the high school game. First, defensive PI is NOT a spot foul in high school at any time! What this means is that a corner could tackle a receiver before the ball gets to him on a play 45 yards downfield and it is only a 15-yard penalty from the line of scrimmage. This is different from the pro level.
This is important to keep in mind as you see better programs in our area clearly teach their corners if they are burned for an obvious touchdown, try and contact the receiver before the ball gets there as they will gladly trade the 15-yard penalty for a walk-in touchdown.
The second little thing on PI to remember is if the ball is tipped by the defense at any time during the pass, defensive pass interference is “off” right then and there. For example if the quarterback has the ball slightly deflected at the line of scrimmage, then while that ball is in the air the defensive players can contact any offensive receiver they like and will not be called for pass interference regardless of when the ball arrives.
4. AUTOMATIC TOUCHBACK
“Why don’t we ever try and run kicks back? I just don’t get our coaches at all!”
This was a phrase screamed next to me out loud at a game I attended last season and little examples like this are exactly why I decided to make this the topic for this week.
In high school during any kicking play, once the ball crosses the white chalk in the endzone for whatever reason, THE PLAY IS DEAD! You cannot advance a kick return or a punt return from your own end zone in high school football.
This rule makes having a kickoff specialist who can put the ball into the end zone each time (Jon Rocholl from Snider in the early 2000s quickly comes to mind) a dangerous weapon for good programs.
Forcing opposing teams to start in a consistent spot on the field after a touchback and limiting their ability to break off an explosive play in the kicking game is an underrated aspect of solid special teams play we see from the very best teams in our area on a weekly basis.
5. THE COIN TOSS
This is more of a behind-the-scenes one, but I’ve heard more than once someone say they need to be in their seats before the coin toss for good luck.
Well I hate to break it to you, but you need to be in your seats an hour before you see the coin toss at midfield if you really want to change the flip of the coin with luck. You see, the coin toss we as fans see at midfield minutes before kickoff is a fake one, staged to allow the spectators to know which team will be receiving and what goal they will be defending. The actual coin toss takes place about 45 minutes before kickoff while teams are going through pregame warmups. The captains are taken out of drills from both teams by the officials, hand shakes are exchanged, and the visiting team gets to call the coin flip.
The team who wins the coin flip then has one of a few decisions to make. The most common decision is to “defer,” which essentially is giving up the right to make the decision in the first half, allowing that team to choose to receive the second half kickoff. Some teams may have a wonderful offensive scheme scripted out and will choose to receive the opening kickoff, but most will likely defer. The coin toss is completed, hands are shaken again and the players hustle back to their pregame drills, fans none the wiser that coaches and teams already know who will be getting the ball and what direction they will be heading nearly an hour before the fans find out during the faux coin toss at midfield!
6. CHOP BLOCK
“That’s a chop block! That was dirty!”
Now hold on a second, a chop block isn’t necessarily always a dirty play. A “chop block” refers to any time a player is blocked below the waist by an opposing player. This can often seem like a dirty or dangerous play, and when used in the wrong context it can be, however there are times a chop is a perfectly legal block.
This rule is an easy one to remember once you learn it. A chop block CAN take place as long as it occurs by an offensive linemen in the box, and most importantly it MUST be the FIRST move the linemen makes. This means an offensive linemen cannot stand up like he’s going to pass block and then trick the defensive linemen by diving at his legs to block him. That is the exact type of dangerous block we want to avoid at this level, but if once the ball is snapped and the very first move an offensive linemen wants to do is dive at the opposing defensive linemen’s legs to get him down, that is allowed.
Chop blocks are few and far between anymore in high school, but they do still occur, especially during screen plays as it’s crucial to get the defensive linemen on the ground to allow the outside screen play to get off and running.
The “dirty” chop blocks people think of often are when a defender is running in open space and gets blocked below the waist. This most certainly still is and always will be a penalty. Just remember that when occurring in the box at the line of scrimmage, chop blocks are allowed as long as certain criteria is met!
7. NEW QUARTERS RULE
This new rule is an absolute welcome change for high school coaches, being most important for those with smaller rosters.
The new quarter rule refers to how many combined quarters of football (freshman, JV, varsity) a player may play during a given week. This rule was infamously strict, often penalizing smaller schools who had to use more guys on Fridays then they initially planned, subsequently burning through those players’ quarters and not allowing that program to field a competitive team during Monday’s JV game. The new rule works as follows:
If you play…
- One Quarter varsity (Still have 4 other quarters to use)
- Two Quarters Varsity (Still have 4 other quarters to use)
- Three Quarters Varsity (Still have 1 other quarter to use)
- Four Quarters Varsity (Obviously no other Quarters to use)
The key number here is having the ability to play a JV-type kid two quarters in a blowout on Friday and still have him available to play all four JV quarters. The old rule would have limited the player to three JV quarters remaining.
This is so essential to smaller programs who have to balance rotations on Fridays, while still keeping in the back of their head who is eligible for Monday’s JV game.
The final piece of crucial information on this: “a play” is ONLY a varsity offensive or defensive play that counts as a quarter, THE KICKING GAME NO LONGER FACTORS INTO YOUR QUARTERS! This is excellent news as now I can throw as many JV kids as I want on punt team, kick-off team, etc. and not burn through their quarters every time they step on the field. This is such a good thing for the kids and the coaches alike and I have heard nothing but positives about this rule change from anyone I’ve interacted with.
8. IHSAA TRANSFER RULE
Don’t worry, I have no idea either….
Coach’s Corner appears every Monday during the prep football season at Outside the Huddle.