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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Making sense of high school football rules

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Without rules, there is chaos.

Easy enough.

But what happens if a handful of do’s and don’ts are, say, altered, amended or even annihilated?

We skimmed the high school football rule book and found a handful of questionable or unusual rules. While there are too many to name in this space (and many that are rarely applicable), a handful struck a chord. So we fleshed out five of these in an attempt to understand the “what” and “why” behind their spot in the big book.

Keep in mind the rules are pretty much determined by the National Federation of High School Associations based in Indianapolis and adopted as-is by the Arizona Interscholastic Association and its officials (along with nearly every other state).

AUTOMATIC TOUCHBACKS

Rule: Punts or kickoffs that cross the goal line are automatically blown dead, and the receiving team starts at the 20-yard line.

Why: Apparently, safety. One less play in which high school kids go full speed and collide into one another. There’s nothing as physically punishing as special teams, but even this rule is baffling. “Why it’s a safety issue I can’t really answer,” said Gary Whelchel, the AIA commissioner of officials. “That’s what the national federation has given us.”

Outlook: Seven out of eight coaches surveyed said this rule was the most perplexing, especially the “safety” explanation.

Phone messages left with the NFHS in Indianapolis were not returned this week, but similar to having no shot clock in basketball, Whelchel said this one has become more hotly debated in the past four or five years. The Arizona representation has voted to change this rule at the yearly national meetings in January, where each state gets a vote.

“A lot of people would like to see the rule go away, especially with kickers being more proficient,” Pinnacle coach Dana Zupke said. “It takes out a pretty exciting part of play.”

Mesa coach Kelley Moore was one in favor of keeping the automatic touchback rule but would like to see kickoffs moved back.

For at least this season, it sounds strange because Mesa kicker Tyler Ryan routinely puts kickoffs into the end zone. Same with Alex Garoutte (Phoenix Brophy), Yannick Mets (Chandler Hamilton) and Matt Gulbrandsen (Mesa Mountain View).

“I think (touchbacks) are something for the kicker to shoot for, but I think kickoffs should be moved back to the 30 or 35 (yard line),” Moore said. “You’re talking about full-speed collisions of kids running down the field. Where’s the safety in that?”

“I’d love an explanation,” Zupke said. “I’m not sure how it protects a kid 2 yards in the end zone.”

EJECTION EQUALS SUSPENSION

Rule: Any player or coach who is ejected from a game must automatically serve a one-game suspension for the next contest.

Why: These are high school kids, and offering stiff consequences as teaching tools for teenagers and their “teachers” will help keep them on the straight and narrow without emulating college or NFL antics.

Outlook: This rule causes blood to boil, not only because it’s viewed as a judgment call by the officiating crew, but that there is no option to appeal the suspension, according to the rules.

The unintended, shining examples of late came from Scottsdale Chaparral in the 2008 playoffs and Chandler Valley Christian from earlier this season.

Former Firebirds linebacker Tommy Russell was ejected from the 4A-I state semifinal game last year for allegedly kicking a Tucson Canyon del Oro player. Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle and former Canyon del Oro coach Pat Nugent sent in tapes of the incident in an effort to show the AIA it wasn’t a malicious play, but because it was a judgment call and there is no appeal process the suspension stood. The Russell family sought a court injunction against the AIA to allow Russell to play but withdrew for fear of repercussions against Chaparral if the AIA ultimately won the case, and Russell sat out the 4A-I championship game.

“He was the heart and soul and a good man who should have never had this happen,” Ragle said. “I’m OK if you get ejected and a one-game suspension if they deem it, then you obviously did something pretty bad. But if you miss the call there should be an appeals process in place. It’s not like your career ended on a bad call on the last game for the state championship.

“I can’t ever accept that.”

Earlier this season a Chandler Valley Christian defensive lineman was ejected from a game against Miami for allegedly throwing a punch.

According to Trojans coach Bill Morgan, he was slapping away the hands of his opponent in an effort to disengage himself from the block, something the Trojans and several other schools teach their linemen to do in order to avoid being stood up and held by offensive linemen.

Morgan offered to show the officials tape of the play afterward, but they declined, and judgment calls can’t be overturned after the fact.

“To me that is the absolute worst rule, period,” Morgan said. “What officials see and think they see are two different things a lot, and it’s the most ridiculous thing that officials 15 yards away can make that kind of call.”

Whelchel said he deals with between 700 and 800 ejections per season, down from an average of 1,200 in the late 1990s. Since then he’s found two instances in which an ejection was overturned based on the “misapplication of a rule which created an ejection.”

“Our membership has never brought it up and even ones which have gotten heated,” Whelchel said. “We’d have to put someone else on staff just to handle them. It would be monstrous undertaking.”

An option to appeal only during state tournaments was bantered by a few coaches as a possible antidote, but it’s clearly viewed as a problem.

For some, it’s a lesson for all involved that the real world isn’t always fair, no matter what you do. For others, it’s a flawed system with no democratic wiggle room.

“That’s the problem with a lack of accountability,” Morgan said. “To lose that player the rest of that game and the following game, it’s completely overboard. If it’s flagrant and kids continue to fight and punch after a play, that’s one thing. But otherwise it’s just football.”

Either way it’s not likely to change.

“It leaves it up to being subjective,” Moore said. “If they make the call we all have to live with it.”

DOWN EQUALS OUT

Rule: A knee or elbow on the ground signals the end of a play, regardless of whether the player was touched by a defender.

Why: Safety. The NFHS doesn’t want to run the risk of players who are down getting tackled or hit hard in defenseless positions.

Outlook: It’s the same rule as in college football, but in the NFL you can get up and continue running if not touched or tackled.

This, of course, isn’t the NFL, and most surveyed agreed with this rule, if only to prevent unnecessary roughness and ambiguity as to whether a player was down by contact or not.

“It’s an easy no-argument to say someone is down,” Phoenix St. Mary’s coach Eddy Zubey said. “It’s a good, clean-cut way, and no ifs, ands or buts.”

PASS INTERFERENCE

Rule: Defensive pass interference is an automatic 15-yard penalty instead of spot-of-the-infraction foul.

Why: Whelchel said that philosophically, high school rules are made to try to create fairness between offensive and defensive advantages, so at a high school game a pass interference at the point of penalty is too big a penalty for one side.

Outlook: Surprisingly, most coaches (many of whom have offensive backgrounds) are in favor of the rule.

It does offer more equity than most. If a player runs an 8-yard pass pattern and is interfered with, the team still gains 15 yards via the penalty (a 7-yard advantage). If a player runs a 25-yard pattern and is interfered with, it’s still a 15-yard penalty (10 yards less than if it would have been at the spot of the foul).

“If there’s one rule since I’ve been here (10 years), it’s the one where there’s so much discrepancy between crews,” Ragle said.

Again, those are judgement calls that are concrete, but it’s also one in which the guilty party and victim knows the consequences.

Added Zubey: “As an offensive coach I’d hate it, but as head coach I love it. I’d rather give up 15 yards than a touchdown. If you’re out of position you have to do what’s best for your team.”

ONSIDE KICK

Rule: If a team that is attempting an onside kick is offside, it’s an automatic re-kick rather than the receiving team automatically getting the ball.

Why: It’s considered a dead ball, thus no play actually occurred, similar to a false start, delay of game or illegal shift penalty.

Outlook: Lame. Defensive offside at most levels allows the play to continue for the offense, which then has the option to accept the penalty or decline it and take the result of the completed play, so why should this be different? In this case, offside against the kicking team is actually beneficial to it if they don’t recover the kick, since it’s an automatic do-over. It should be the receiving team’s ball.

Then again, when it comes to rule books, everyone has their “shoulds.”

“We want it our way all the time,” Moore said. “That’s the way of our world, but the bottom line is we don’t get it all the time and we shouldn’t.”

© 2009 Freedom Communications / Arizona. Displayed by permission. All rights reserved.

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