Curt Johnson's
American Football Rules Answers for Coaches

If you are a football coach or player (any level) and have a question about the rules, send your question to Curt Johnson at cmajohnson AT charter DOT net. Curt Johnson is a high school and college football official. Please specify NCAA (college) or NFHS (high school) rules in your question. This site also has an introduction to the rules and answers for fans.

Question: Can a cornerback grab a receiver by the jersey with his hands as they are coming off the line of scrimmage? How far downfield can the cornerback run with the receiver doing this?

Answer: No, the cornerback may not grab a receiver--that is holding (10 yard penalty, and under NCAA rules automatic 1st down if a forward pass is thrown). A defender may contact a reciever at the line of scrimmage, but only with a legal blocking technique. And he may continue to block him all the way down the field until the ball is thrown. But when the reciever gets to the same yardline as the defender, the defender must stop blocking him as he is no longer considered a "potential blocker."

Question: I want to run an unbalanced offense with only my guard and tackle on one side and everyone else on the other side. Can I bring both of my tight ends to one side, keep them on the line and still retain their pass eligibility, or do the eligible receivers on the line have to be on each end of the line?

Answer: Pass eligibilty rules apply to who is eligible to CATCH a legal forward pass. The receiver must be eligible by position AND by number. There are up to 6 eligible positions at the snap:

Also, these receivers must be wearing a number other than 50 thru 79 to catch the pass.

Your covered tight end is ineligible by position and your tackle on the end of the line is ineligible by number since he's probably wearing a number from 50-79. My suggestion would be to keep your TE on the end and move your guard or tackle over to where you moved your TE. That way you still have the same unbalanced formation but your TEs can now catch a pass.

Question: Can I make my tackle, # 76, eligible by having him report to the referee before the play?

Answer: No, under Federation (High school) and NCAA rules, numbers 50-79 are always ineligible.

Question: Can the QB or running back be numbered between 50-79?

Answer: Yes, they can pass the ball, run with the ball, etc. But they are ineligible to CATCH a forward pass.

Question: If I put all my linemen on one side of the center so that he's now on the end of the line, is he an eligible receiver?

Answer: If he's wearing a number other than 50-79, then yes, he's eligible to catch a forward pass.

Question: What is the penalty for an ineligible player to catch a forward pass?

Answer: Under NCAA rules if an originally ineligible player catches a forward pass anywhere on the field, it's a 5 yard illegal touching penalty from the previous spot, repeat the down.

NFHS: New rule for 2006. If any ineligible player intentionally touches a forward pass anywhere on the field it is Illegal touching--5yds and loss of down. If the touching was downfield the penalty will be enforced from the previous spot. If the Illegal touching is behind the line, its enforced from the spot of the foul. Again the touching must be intentional; if the ball simply hits him, that's not illegal touching.

Question: Can an offensive lineman EVER catch a forward pass?

Answer: Yes, once a forward pass is tipped/touched by the defense, then all players become eligible.

Question: How many players have to be on the line of scrimmage?

Answer: For the offense, you must have 7 or more players on the line at the snap. If not, it's an illegal formation, 5 yard penalty. The defense, on the other hand, is not required to have any players on the line or to be in any particular formation.

Question: Are all players required to wear shoes?

Answer: Under NFHS (high school) rules, YES, all players (including the kicker) must wear shoes. Under NCAA rules, shoes are NOT required equipment.

Question: In high school football, what are the distances between sideline and hash marks? Also where do the numbers go?

Answer: Under NFHS rules, the field is 160 feet wide (or 53 yds & 1 foot) and is divided into 3 equal sections. Each hash mark is 53 feet and 4 inches from the sideline and that is the same distance between them. It is recommended, but not required, that the numbers be 4 feet wide and 6 feet high with the top of the numbers 9 yds from the sideline. Also remember that the extra point line is 3 yds from the goal line (not 2 like the NFL).

Question: The towels the players can have on the field--are they supplosed to be a certain color and size?

Answer: NFHS: Any player may wear a towel. Towels must be white only and no smaller than 4" x 12" and no larger than 18" x 36".
NCAA: Two defensive players may wear a white towel that is 4" x 12". One offensive backfield player may wear a 4" x 12" white towel. One offensive interior lineman may wear a white towel of any size.

Question: In high school rules, if the punted ball hits one of the offensive linemen before crossing the line of scrimmage, then rolls over the line of scrimmage and is recovered by the offense, is it a live ball or a dead ball? The ball never touched or was touched a defensive player.

Answer: NFHS: The touching of a scrimmge kick at or behind the neutral zone by either team is ignored. So, in your play you simply have a punt recovered by the kicking team beyond the neutral zone. Ball is dead immediately and belongs to the receiving team at that spot.

Question: In High School rules, do they use the concept of face guarding for Offensive pass interference?

Answer: Yes, it is a foul to intentionally obstruct a receiver's vison (faceguard). This applies equally to the offense and defence. That is the ONLY situation where pass interference can occur without contact. But keep in mind that he must obstruct his vision. If the defender simply "reads" the receiver's face and then puts his hand up to try and knock the ball away from the receiver's hands, it is interference only if contact is made. The defender is not required to turn his head to see the ball.

Question: After a safety, the kicking team has the option to punt or kick the ball. Why can't the kicking team do an on-side punt, recovering the ball after it travels 10 yards?

Answer: NCAA & NFHS: Any free kick, including a punt following a safety, may be recovered by the kicking team after it has traveled 10 yds or been touched by a receiver.

Question: Is it legal to hit the ball before it gets to the Quarterback? My noseguard did it in a game last week and the ref said if he did it again then he would throw a flag. When I asked the ref what he would call, he had no answer.

Answer: NFHS RULES: As long as the defensive player in no way breaks the neutral zone before the snap (i.e., encroachment), he may legally knock the ball away from the snapper after the ball begins to move.
NCAA RULES: Until the ball completely leaves the snapper's hands, it is illegal for the defense to touch the ball. 5 yard, dead ball offsides foul agaist the defense.

Question: If a extra point is higher than the post does it have to be 100% on the inside of the posts or does only a portion of the ball.

Answer: NFHS & NCAA rules: The entire ball must pass to the inside of the INSIDE edge of the upright extended indefinitely above the top of the upright.
NFL: The entire ball must pass to the inside of the OUTSIDE edge of the upright extended indefinitely above the top of the upright.

Question: If an offensive player fumbles just before crossing the defender's goal line and the ball goes out of bounds through the back of the end zone, who gets possession, and where is the ball put back into play? What if the ball was knocked out of the runner's hands?

Answer: NCAA: Force/impetus is always attributed to the player that fumbles, regardless of how the ball was knocked out. Simply touching the fumble does not change the original force/impetus.
If a fumble goes forward into and out of the opponents' endzone, it is a touchback for the opponents. 1st and 10 from the 20 yardline.

Question: In a fake placement must the holder's knee be off the ground before he catches the snap?

Answer: NFHS & NCAA rules: The holder is not down if he catches the snap with his knees on the ground, as long as there is a player in position to kick the ball. It is not required that a kick actually be attempted. So once the holder has the ball he may place and hold the ball for the kicker, OR:
NCAA: He may pass, handoff, etc. from his knees--or he may rise to advance, pass, handoff etc.,
NFHS: He MUST rise first before he does anything else (pass, handoff, etc.)

EXAMPLE: From a field goal formation, the holder catches the snap then, while still on his knees he "shovel passes" the ball forward to the wingback, who advances for a TD.
RULING: NCAA--Legal play, Touchdown counts.
NFHS--The holder is down immediately when he passes the ball before lifting his knees off the ground. Dead ball, touchdown does not count.

Question: During a field goal attempt, can the holder spike the football?

Answer: NFHS: No
NCAA: As long as the ball hasn't touched the ground and the holder immediately spikes the ball after gaining control, then yes he may spike it to stop the clock.

Question: Can a "fair catch" be called on an on-side kick? I know the ball can't hit the ground first, but how about an on-side kick that is popped up in the air?

Answer: Yes, a fair catch can be called on any kick. And even if a fair catch signal is not given the receiver must not be interfered with before he catches the ball. That is why on an on-side kick the kicker almost always kicks the ball into the ground first. That removes the possibility for interference.

Question: My uncle claims that if the receiving team of a free kick signals for a fair catch, they can choose to kick a field goal on the very next down and be unopposed - i.e., the defense cannot try to block the kick. I looked through the NCAA rulebook and didn't see this. Is there any situation where the offense is allowed to kick a field goal without opposition in either college or high school football?

Answer: Free kicks following a fair catch are allowed under NFHS & NFL rules, but not NCAA.

Following the legal FAIR CATCH of any kick, the receiving team may choose to run a regular scrimmge play OR they may free kick the ball from the the yardline where the catch was made. Simply stated, a free kick following a fair catch is a kickoff with a chance for 3 pts. For the most part all the rules are the same as for a kickoff (i.e., teams 10yds apart etc.). This is obviously a very rare play and is usually only used at the very end of the first half or the end of the game.

Also, a kicking tee may be used in NFHS games but not in the NFL. There are some other differences, but those are the basics.

Question: When the offensive team attempts a field goal, sometimes the ball will travel high above the field goal posts, especially when done at a close range. If the ball appears too travel just above the left or right post of the field goal post or even higher, at what point is the goal good?

Answer: NFHS & NCAA: The ENTIRE ball must pass to the inside of the INSIDE edge of the upright extended indefinately above the upright.
NFL: The ENTIRE ball must pass to the inside of the OUTSIDE edge of the upright extended indefinately above the upright.

BOTH: Since the upright is 3-4 inches in diameter and the football is more than 4 inches in diameter in any direction, a ball that passes EXACTLY over an upright will be no good under all 3 codes because part of the ball will be breaking the aforementioned plane.

Question: What is the penalty for too many men on the field by the defense during a play? Pro teams are penalized 5 yards for too many men on the field. If the college penalty is different than the pros, what would be the reason for the difference?

Answer: NCAA & NFHS: If 12 or more players participate during the down its Illegal Participation-15 yards. If the extra player is running off the field but doesn't make it in time, and he continues off the field and doesn't affect the play its Illegal Substitution-5 yards.
NFL: The penalty for too many men on the field, regardless of where they are, is 5 yards.

The reason for the difference is there are three different sets of rules: NFHS, NCAA, and NFL.

Question: How many players are allowed to dress in American college football?

Answer: There is no restriction in the rulebook.

Question: On a kickoff one player has the ball hit off him and then the ball goes into the end zone, the receiving team gets the ball and kneels down for a touchback. Is it a touchback or a safety?

Answer: Touchback; the touching does not change the force of the kick going into the endzone.

Question: On a kickoff, if the recieving team allows the ball to roll in the endzone and the kicking team recovers the ball without the recieving team touching it, is it a touchdown for the kicking team?

Answer: NFHS: Anytime a kickoff breaks the plane of the receiver's goal line, it is immediately dead and ruled a touchback.
NCAA: If a kickoff, untouched by the receiving team, touches the ground in the endzone, the kick is immediately dead and ruled a touchback.
NFL: The kick remains "live" and may be recovered by the kicking team for a touchdown.

Question: If I have the ball on the 9 yard line, fourth and goal, I run the ball, fumble on the 4-yard line, it goes into the endzone and my tight end recovers the ball in the end zone...what's the call?

Answer: NFL & NCAA: Only the person who fumbled may recover the ball. The ball is return to the spot of the fumble, down counts, 1st and 10 for the defense.

Question: Is a dropped shovel pass considered an incomplete pass or a fumble?

Answer: A forward pass, is a forward pass, is a forward pass. It can be thrown overhand, underhand, one-handed, two-handed or between your legs. The direction it travels is the only deciding factor as to whether it's forward or backward.

So, if a forward shovel pass hits the ground it's an incomplete pass.

Question: In a recent game the quarter back threw a forward pass, it hit a defensive lineman, went up in the air, the quarterback then caught the ball he had originally thrown the air (all of this was behind the original line of scrimmage) and then proceeded to throw the ball a second time to an open offensive receiver who then caught the ball. It was ruled as a legal forward pass.

My question is, "How many times can a forward pass be thrown?" In this case it would appear that two forward passes were thrown. Once from the QB to the QB and the second pass was from the QB to a different offensive player.

Answer: NFL, NCAA & NFHS: Only one forward pass may be thrown during a down.
(Before 2005, NFHS allowed multiple forward passes from behind the line of scrimmage.)

Question: A run back of a punt for a touchdown was called back and the defense was penalized for roughing the center. It didn't appear there was any kicking or unnecessary force on the center's neck or head. At that time in the game it was a crucial call and NBC never explained the rule.

Answer: NCAA: During a kicking play the defense cannot contact the snapper at all until 1 second has elapsed. Penalty: 15yds, automatic 1st down

Question: I attended the 2004 Ole Miss vs Wyoming game and saw something I have never seen in 45 years. Wyoming punted and Ole Miss blocked the punt. One of the Wyoming lineman grabbed the Ole Miss player who blocked the punt and held him so he could not recover the attempted punt. The Wyoming punter then picked up the ball and punted it again. Questions:

  1. Can you punt it twice on the same play?
  2. Can the Wyoming player legally hold the Ole Miss player?
  3. Does an ineligible lineman downfield rule apply in this case?

Answer: NCAA:

  1. Yes, as long as the first kick did not go beyond the line of scrimmage, it may be punted again.
  2. No, that is holding. However, sometimes in the scramble of a blocked kick, this foul can be missed.
  3. Ineligible lineman downfield is only an NFL rule, it does not apply in NCAA (or NFHS).

Question: On fourth down the quarter back is in the shotgun with split backs, the ball is snapped to a back and the ball is kicked. Is this legal, without telling the refs we are going to kick the ball? This gives the kicking team time to get down field and the defense team will not be in the correct formation to receive the kick and we can touch the ball down closer to the goal line.

Answer: There is no required formation that the kicking team must use. (Unless your league has rules to the contrary that you must report the kicks or you must be in a certain formation.) But if you don't use a scrimmage kick formation, then the center does not get special protection, and the person who kicks the ball isn't fully protected when it's not certain that a kick will be made. Contact your league for more info.

Question: I am curious what the name of each marker pole is called on the chain gang of football. I have heard the terms 'yard of down marker' and ten yard marker' and 'line of scrimmage marker' but I am not sure if these are right and which marker each would apply to.

Answer: NFHS, NCAA & NFL: The rulebook calls them "the line to gain indicator" and "the down indicator." But, as I'm sure you have come to realize, there are "slang" names that used by announcers, coaches ect. The line to gain indicator is most often called, "the chains" because it is two poles joined together by a 10 yard chain. The down indicator is most often called, "the down box" or "the box." This is a traditional term that started many years ago, when the down indicator was actually a four sided box on the top of a pole, with the numbers 1,2,3,4 painted on each side. Whichever number was facing the field was the correct down. As you might guess, this was very confusing, because when one number was facing the field, a totally different number was facing the coaches and crowd. Nowadays, there are tabs on the two-sided indicator that slide up and down to change the number, and the same number is displayed on both sides.

Question: What do the various letters on the officials' shirts mean?

Answer: NCAA:
  R--Referee
  U--Umpire
  H--(Head) Linesman
  L--Line Judge
  F--Field Judge
  S--Side Judge
  B--Back Judge

Question: I was watching Notre Dame and they were called for an illegal snap. Just what is that?

Answer: The snap should be a quick, continuous, backwards movement of the ball from its position on the ground in which the ball immediately leaves the hands of the snapper and touches a backfield player or the ground before it touches an offensive team lineman. The most common illegal snap occurs when the snapper starts to move the ball, then stops, then starts again. This double-clutch is not a continuous movement.
Dead ball foul--5 yards from the previous spot repeat the down.

Question: Is it true that when a defense is scored upon they may elect to kick off and go back on defense...several websites talk about doing this in order to not allow an opposing team to have an opportunity to on-side kick and recover with good enough field position for a field goal attempt at the end of a game.

Answer: Yes, under NFHS & NFL rules the team that is scored upon has the option to kickoff instead of receive. However, under NCAA rule change in 2003, that is no longer an option, the scoring team must kickoff.

Question: During a football game the quarterback was walking along the line of scrimmage calling an audible, they direct snapped the ball to the running back. The play was called back for "intent to deceive". Is this a penalty? I have never heard of it and have seen this trick play ran many times.

Answer: Yes, this is a foul. Under the current interpretation by the NCAA rules commitee, these types of actions, design to make the defense think that a snap is not imminent or that there is some other kind of problem (ie Coach what's the play, we have the wrong subs, I need the kicking shoe, or any variation thereto) are deemed to be unnecessary theatrics and are therefore unsportsmanlike conduct.

NFHS rules agree.

Question: If a member of the kickoff team recovers an onsides kick past 10 yards he can pick up the ball and run to the endzone as long as he is never ruled down.

Answer: The kickers cannot advance a kick; they can only recover it.

Question: NCAA Rules. I recall a few years ago that Referee magazine had an article about the 1-point safety. Ironically, about 6 weeks later, I was watching Texas A&M vs Texas Tech, and the following occurred: One team scored a TD. On the try, the kick was blocked, and the defending team tried to advance the ball (legal in NCAA). However, as the defender crossed out of the end zone, he was hit and finally stopped back in the end zone. The ref awarded a 1-point safety because that was the maximum value of the try (scrimmage kick attempt.) Is that right? (Not likely in NFL or Fed because they cannot advance a failed try.)

Answer: Yes, that's a 1 pt safety. It is possible for that to happen in a HS game. On the try, A fumbles at the 4yl the ball is at rest when a Team B player forces the ball into the EZ where Team B falls on it, 1 pt safety for A.

Question: It's near the end of the half, and Team A punts from its own goal line into the wind. Team B fair catches at the Team A 30. There are only 2 seconds left, so Team B requests a chance to attempt a free kick. Should they put it between the uprights, thats 3 points, yes? And if they miss, its Team A's ball at the spot of the free kick. Did I get that right?

Answer: Free kicks following a fair catch are allowed under NFHS & NFL rules, but not NCAA. Following the legal FAIR CATCH of any kick, the receiving team may choose to run a regular scrimmage play OR they may free kick the ball from the the yard line where the catch was made. Simply stated, a free kick following a fair catch is a kickoff with a chance for 3 pts. All the rules are the same as for a kickoff (i.e., teams 10yds apart etc.). If the kick is missed its treated like any other kickoff. If its short of the goaline the receivers can return it. If it goes into the EZ. It's a touchback and the ball goes to the 20yl. Also, a kicking tee may be used in NFHS games but not in the NFL. There are some other differences, but those are the basics.

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Curt Johnson / cmajohnson AT charter DOT net
Last update Tuesday, 14-Sep-2010 10:06:56 CDT