ROCKINGHAM — Before Richmond Senior and South View took to the gridiron for a scrimmage Wednesday afternoon, head referee Jason Graham talked to the players about four rule changes for the upcoming season.
It didn’t take long for one of those changes to become the talk of the scrimmage.
While on offense, one of Richmond’s running backs was attempting to break free from a tackle. At the same time, one of its offensive linemen was running downfield to block a defender.
Moments later, the field was littered with yellow penalty flags because of the block. Richmond was called for a personal foul because the officials ruled the lineman hit a “defenseless player.”
The National Federation of State High School Associations in its rule book states: “A defenseless player is a player who, because of his physical position and focus of concentration, is especially vulnerable to injury.”
Richmond coach Paul Hoggard asked the officials for a clarification on the call because he wanted to ensure his players avoid a similar penalty during a regular-season contest that could result in a disqualification from that game and possibly a two-game suspension.
“He was a defenseless player, basically what that means is he had stopped playing and he was standing around in front of the ball,” Hoggard said. “Our ball carrier was still running, it was still a live play. Our offensive lineman blocked a player in front of the ball. I don’t want to sound harsh for their kid, but the whistle ain’t blown. Don’t stand around.
“If it had been made behind it (the play), I would totally understand it.”
Hoggard added he knows changes are being made to put the health of players first, but he believes it could alter the spirit of the game.
“I would hate to be in the officials’ spot, it’s a tough spot for them to be in,” Hoggard said. “This is all stemming from the NFL. The key issue is the safety of the kids. I think everybody is for the safety of the kids, there is no doubt in my mind that every coach in America is for the safety of the kids. They don’t want to see anybody get hurt.
“But my fear on it is with it being a judgment call is that any big hit in a football game is going to become a flag and a personal foul. I don’t want to see the game become softened. Football is a tough, hard game. Do I want the kids to stay healthy? Absolutely, but I don’t want to make football into anything different than what it is.”
In addition to the rule on defenseless players, Graham told the teams another point of emphasis for officials this fall will be targeting. Graham used a baseball analogy to describe the area where a defensive player can hit a ball carrier.
“This is your strike zone,” Graham said while pointing from his shoulders down to his feet. “No aiming or launching yourself above the shoulders.”
The NFHS defines it as: “Targeting is an act of taking aim and initiating contact to an opponent above the shoulders with the helmet, forearm, hand, fist, elbow or shoulders.”
The other two rule changes Graham discussed with the players center on kickoffs.
Teams must have a minimum of four players on either side of the kicker. In addition, a kicking team can no longer be in bunch formation before a kickoff and then spread out as the ball is being kicked.
The final change states all of the kicking team’s players — except for the kicker — must be within five yards of the 40-yard line or wherever the ball is being kicked. Graham said players cannot have a foot on the line, that all of player’s body must be inside that area or it will result in a 5-yard penalty.
Reach sports editor Shawn Stinson at 910-817-2671 or on Twitter @scgolfer.