Lauren Brownlow

Rule changes, new points of emphasis highlight 2017 ACC officiating

Posted July 13
Updated July 14

College football can implement nationwide rule changes every other year. This isn't one of those years. But, exceptions are made when rules involve safety, or when there is a particular point of emphasis.

There are two points of emphasis this year, but only one that will have people talking: sideline management.

As the rule reads, coaches who enter the field of play to demonstrate disagreement with an officiating decision are subject to an immediate 15-yard penalty.

"So what we're trying to do really is change the behavior of coaches, and I emphasize that it is a really small minority of coaches that will be affected by this," ACC Supervisor of Officiating Dennis Hennigan said.

In the past, if a coach entered hte field of play to argue with a referee, he'd either be given a warning or you would see an official walk the head coach back to the sideline in an (often futile) attempt to calm him down. Neither of those things will happen this season.

If a coach walks onto the field, it will be an immediate unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. And two such penalties will result in ejection.

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“The purpose of this rule isn’t to try to eliminate emotional reactions in the heat of the moment," Hennigan said. "It’s an emotional game. All we want is for them to occur on the sideline and to leave the field of play to the players and to the officials.”

The rule applies to both head coaches and assistant coaches. Hennigan also wanted to make it clear, though, that this rule won't be applied arbitrarily - coaches who come onto the field to call a play or to call timeout will not be penalized. It's only meant for coaches who come barreling onto the field, red-faced, screaming at officials.

“The hope and the expectation is that it’ll be uniformly applied throughout the country," Hennigan said.

And naturally, fans will no doubt be watching for that as well. It's almost like a technical foul in basketball: if a coach gets out of a designated coach's box, it's supposed to be a technical. But it's not always called. Will it be? It will be interesting to see. It would be easy to imagine a call or two like that changing a game.

In the off-season, Hennigan said that the rules committee also looked at ways to potentially shorten games by changing rules. They have made game length a national point of emphasis as well, and they will take "administrative steps" to do just that rather than change any rules.

Typically, Hennigan said, referees will wait to start the 20-minute halftime clock until the teams are headed to their respective locker rooms and the head coach has finished his on-field interview. Now, officials will just start the clock as soon as the half ends.

And you'll see some changes from the guy in the little red hat.

“We want to try and start not only the game but also the second half in a timely manner, and we also want to make sure the media timeouts are the agreed-upon length," Hennigan said. "In the past, you would see the person in the red hat who would really control the length of media timeouts.

This year, what you’re going to see is when he gets 30 seconds from his producer, he’s going to leave the field. The officials will take over the timing from that point on. It’ll be that way at the start of the second half and all media timeouts.”

There are two actual, real-life rules changes happening - and yes, both are to do with player safety. There will be no hurdling allowed by defensive players over offensive linemen on field goals and PATs this year as the committee felt it put the hurdler at risk.

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And a horse-collar tackle foul now includes grabbing the nameplate.

Pretty ho-hum, but there are areas that will be more closely looked at this year to be potentially changed next: blocking below the wait and ineligible receiver downfield.

Hennigan went through statistics for the assembled media: the ACC had 18 targeting fouls called in conference play. Of the fouls called, 20% were false starts, 14% were offensive holding calls and 11% were pass interference.

Hennigan showed the media clips of examples of both good and bad holding and pass interference calls, including a defensive penalty that prolonged a Pittsburgh-UNC game a few years ago. The Tar Heels scored the game-winning touchdown a play later. That was an example of a bad call, Hennigan said.

"We seem to have a run of wide receivers that are 6-5 and what teams will do is they’ll just throw these jump balls into the corner of the end zone, these fade passes, with a 6-5 receiver and a 5-10 defensive back," Hennigan said. "What we tell our officials to look for is if the offensive receiver can get both arms in the air to make a play on the ball, there is no foul. That’s what he is looking at.”

There's a lot of dispute as to what is and isn't pass interference, as it's often a judgment call. Hennigan said that if a receiver can get his arms up to make an attempt to catch the ball, it shouldn't be interference.

But Hennigan also said that defensive players will get less leeway if they are not playing the ball. “When you’re in that position defensively, we give you very little leeway. Any early contact is going to be a foul. You’re not playing the ball. At the very least, you need to turn your head around.”

Hennigan also went through some clips of holding, a play that is commonly misunderstood. "I often hear that you could call holding on every play," Hennigan said, laughing. "When it comes to holding: we're looking at whether or not the defensive player, whether there wsa a significant restriction on his ability to affect the play."

He showed examples where there was some contact, but that "significant restriction" wasn't there. He also said back when he was an official that he would tell players they'd have to earn the hold. If they didn't attempt to get away while being held, they're not going to call it.

There are also things officials are trained to look for: an offensive lineman who gets beat or a pulling offensive lineman (who often overruns the play and has to grab a defensive lineman cutting inside. They also won't call holding on a wide receiver who lets go of a defensive back in time to let him make the play.

"You can prove anything in slow motion," Hennigan said.

And that sort of sums up where the conference - and all of college football - is in terms of the way its officiating is judged. Fans get the benefit of a hundred different slo-mo replays from several angles.

Targeting calls were upheld 71% of the time nationally in college football, down slightly from 74% in 2015. That's a good thing, Hennigan said.

“I think that’s because when a targeting foul now goes to replay, replay really looks at it fresh. They look at the entire action that occurred during that play and that really was a change from prior years where replay would only look at certain aspects of the targeting call.”

And Hennigan has a pretty solid rule of thumb for all of his officials when they make any call:

“Would you be comfortable calling back the game-winning score in the conference championship game with that flag? If you are, then throw the flag. If you’re not, you’d better keep that flag in your pocket.”

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