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High school football just made two major rule changes for player safety

The National Federation of State High School Associations, the governing body of high school sports, has once again stiffened rules in high school football in the name of safety.

New regulations released Wednesday formally eliminate the blindside block and “pop-up” onside kicks.

A hit on any player who is not carrying the ball and “does not see the blocker approaching,” is now punished with a 15-yard penalty. Such a hit, Rule 9-4-3n states,  “involves contact by a blocker against an opponent who, because of physical positioning and focus of concentration, is vulnerable to injury.” A blindside hit is legal if it is initiated with “open hands,” the rule says.

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That’s going to be very difficult to judge, said Dennis Hall, commissioner of the Northern Virginia Football Officials Association. The group referees games in Fauquier, Prince William, Fairfax, Arlington and Loudoun counties, and the city of Alexandria.

“That’s nasty, the way they wrote it,” Hall said. “I understand the intent of it and I think it’s good, the intent of it, but what you’re going to hear from the sideline now is, ‘Well, he didn’t see him.'”

According to the new rule, a hit like this would be illegal:

A blindside block has always been punishable, Hall said, as unnecessary roughness or a hit on a “defenseless player,” both 15-yard penalties. The new NFHS regulations specify that the subject of a blindside block is defenseless, too.

The rule changes also defines the following as defenseless players:

  • A player in the act of or just after throwing a pass

  • A receiver attempting to catch a pass who has not had time to clearly become a runner

  • The intended receiver of a pass in the action during and immediately following an interception or potential interception

  • A runner already in the grasp of a tackler and whose forward progress has been stopped

  • A kickoff or punt returner attempting to catch or recover a kick, or one who has completed a catch or recovery and has not had time to protect himself or has not clearly become a ball carrier

  • A player on the ground including a ball carrier who has obviously given himself up and is sliding feet-first

  • A player obviously out of the play or not in the immediate vicinity of the runner

“This is going to be tough,” Hall said. “Every play that we do that involves a pass, we’re going to hear something.”

NFHS also banned “pop-up” kicks, or kicks in which, “the kicker drives the ball immediately to the ground, the ball strikes the ground once and goes into the air in the manner of a ball kicked directly off the tee,” the rule states.

So this is now illegal:

Such kicks are referred to as onside kicks, and used often in late-game scenarios when the trailing kicking team will try to recover the kick after it has gone 10 yards. Since the ball hits the ground, the receiving team cannot signal a fair catch (as it would on a kick lofted directly into the air), and the kicking team can run under the free ball.

Officials have long lamented these kicks, Hall said, as the cause of injuries, because of the fight that takes place to recover the ball.

“If [the ball] goes high enough, that’s where you get injuries, because you can’t tell who did what to whom,” he said.

A pop-up kick will result in a 5-yard penalty and possession of the ball to the receiving team.

NFHS also amended rules regarding pass interference penalties, ball specification, uniforms, penalty time clock management and prosthetic limbs.

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