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Behind the Stripes: What the 2019 football rules changes mean to the game

05/15/2019, 1:45pm CDT
By B.J. Ligocki, Special to WSN

"Behind the Stripes" is written by veteran WIAA official B.J. Ligocki, an active message board poster who has helped many people on the forum with rules questions and clarifications over the years. The purpose of this feature is to help educate readers on any rules changes, clarify procedures and rules, provide case studies and examples, and answer any questions people may have on officiating or rules.

Feel free to email any rules or officiating questions you have at for inclusion in future articles.

B.J. Ligocki:  Football (Master Level - 12 yrs - State Championship); Basketball (Level 5 -20 years - Regional); Baseball/Softball (Level 5 - 20 years - Regional)

The NFHS has released their rule changes for the upcoming season, with one significant change regarding the play clock and a few minor alterations.

The biggest change this year is the switch to a 40 second play clock from the time the ball becomes dead, instead of 25 seconds after the referee signals ready for play. This aligns high school football with both college and professional leagues for the most part. Ideally, this change won’t be noticed during the season - coaches will get their plays in on time and teams will get into formation and get the snap off.

Mechanically, the official that rules the ball down will raise their hand as the signal to start the play clock. Signaling an incomplete pass, stopping the clock if a first down, or any other signal that kills the play will also serve as the start of the play clock.

The 25 second clock still will be used at certain times: after a timeout (team or official), after enforcing a penalty, injury and other administrative situations. If for some reason the ball is not spotted by the time the clock gets down to 25 seconds (deep incomplete pass, equipment issue, etc.) the clock should be reset to 25 when the ball is eventually spotted.

One thing to keep in mind is that unlike at upper levels, there is no display of the play clock on the field, so coaches and teams will need to know whether it was set to 25 or 40 and develop a feel for how much is left. Officials will signal when there is either 10 or 5 seconds left depending on their mechanics, but there is generally no way to tell exactly how much time is left. Expect a few extra timeouts to be used early in the season as everyone acclimates to the new system.

Previously, officials were able to set the pace of the game by adjusting how much time was given between the end of the play and the ready for play whistle. The ready could be slightly delayed for a minor injury or a team out of the game struggling to get plays in. Unfortunately, it also caused inconsistency because the delay was different to some degree for each referee. This is also becoming a factor when teams want to run plays as fast as possible, but officials need to keep the pace the same for both teams. A referee can’t wait 10 seconds after the dead ball to blow the whistle for the team that is fine going slow, but blow it in immediately for a team that wants to run fast in the same game. With the 40 second clock, the total time is about the same, but teams can run their plays as soon as they are ready.

There were two changes to the rules regarding safety, and for the first time in several years it does not have anything to do with helmet contact, a good sign that things are improving in that area. The first change is an adjustment to the horse collar rule. Before this year a tackler had to actually grab the ball carrier inside the shoulder pads or jersey opening to commit a foul. Now the horse collar rule includes tackling by the nameplate area. A good change because the runner is still at risk of a leg injury when pulled down in either manner.

The second safety rule is that tripping the runner is now illegal. This is another alignment with upper levels of football and a move towards using consistent tackling techniques to bring down a ball carrier. I believe the risk of injury is obvious when a runner is going full speed and an opponent kicks or strikes at the legs.

Besides some changes on jersey issues, the only other change deals with legal offensive formations. Last year an offensive team was required to have 7 players on the line of scrimmage. Going forward, only 5 players are required to be on the line (basically, the offensive line) and they cannot have more than 4 backs. This does not have an effect on what formations are legal, but it allows for a team mistakenly playing with fewer than 11 players to not be penalized for not having enough players on the line since there is no advantage gained.

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