New Season Brings New Rule Book for High School Football

By Stephen Sports
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The busy high school football preseason that gets under way on Friday will be a little bit busier for coaches this year as they work to acquaint their players with new rules implemented by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association for this season.
Up until the 2019 season, Massachusetts was one of a handful of states who operated under NCAA rules. This year, it changes to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ rule book.
“A lot of the changes have to do with penalty enforcements,” said Marc Field, the president of the Berkshire County Football Officials Association.
“One of the big changes is no blocking below the waist anymore except on the line of scrimmage at the snap.”
According to the NFHS, narrowing below the waist tackles to the line of scrimmage and only players who line up on the line reduces the risk of lower leg injuries.
“On the other hand, blocking below the waist helps to level the playing field for those players who are at a size disadvantage compared to that of their opponents,” the Federation wrote in its 2015 points of emphasis. “The [rules] committee continues to stress the importance of officiating the rule as written, instead of prohibiting blocking below the waist completely.”
That change will require a big adjustment for players.
Another big change will mean a new expectation for fans.
Under NCAA rules -- the old regime for MIAA football -- all personal fouls, including defensive pass interference, resulted in an automatic first down.
Under NFHS rules, there are only a handful of infractions that result in an automatic first down: roughing the kicker, roughing the passer, roughing the snapper and roughing the holder.
“Let’s say it’s third and 20, and the quarterback goes back to pass, and the [defensive back] tackles the receiver,” Field said. “In Federation rules, there’s only four automatic first downs, so now that would result in third and 5.
“It’s going to take a while for everybody to get on board.”
Another thing missing from that list of automatic first down penalties: grabbing the facemask.
On the other hand, the NFHS does not allow any grabbing of an opponent’s facemask, unlike the NCAA rulebook that requires twisting or yanking a facemask to draw a penalty. Under NFHS rules, there is a 5-yard penalty for “incidental” grabs; a 15-yarder requires twisting or pulling on the facemask.
Fans -- and players -- also will have to adjust to a new rule on defensive offsides.
“Now, when the ball is ready for play, once the defensive guy flinches or goes into the neutral zone, it’s a 5-yard penalty,” Field said. “The defensive line has no time to get back before the snap. It’s a blow and throw.
“It’s a disadvantage for the defense if you have a quarterback with a good cadence.”
Another potential boon to the offense: no more fourth-down fumble rule.
Last year at a Massachusetts high school football game, if a ballcarrier on fourth down fumbled and it was recovered by the offense, the ball was returned to the spot of the fumble.
Now? The offense can advance the ball on a fumble, even on fourth down … unless the officials determine that there was intent on the part of the original ballcarrier, which would constitute an illegal forward pass after the line of scrimmage.
Field said the Massachusetts officials tried but failed to preserve the fourth-down fumble rule when the MIAA decided to switch to NFHS rules.
“If the guy is in the middle of a pile, sometimes it’s hard to see if he did throw [the ball] forward or have it stripped,” Field said. “It’s going to put the onus on us.”
Some of the rules changes will be less noticeable to the casual fan but require big changes in how officials manage the game. For example, the former 25-second play clock, which began after the ball was ready to play, has been replaced with a 40-second play clock that will begin as soon as the ball is marked dead from a prior play.
And one NFHS rule will only come up at some games: A running clock will now be possible once the margin on the scoreboard reaches 35 points in the second half.
Field said that all the changes in how the game is officiated will require a learning curve, but officials’ associations in Western Massachusetts have tried to get ahead of the curve by conducting training for their members and meetings for coaches.
“Hopefully, we do a good job and do it right,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence because it seemed [at an August officials meeting] like a lot of guys were really into the new rules. There are going to be times when we mess up thinking it’s the old way, and people will have to accept that that’s going to happen.
“We’ve taken a very proactive approach to this. [Berkshire County] and Springfield were the first associations to get the books and dive into these rules.”
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