High school football teams adjust to NFHS rules changes

Thursday, August 24, 2017 | 5:00 PM

High school football season kicks off Friday, and the National Federation of State High School Associations has instructed officials to enforce two new safety rules: illegal blindside, defenseless player and targeting hits and the elimination of pop-up kickoffs.

The NFHS sent a letter to the state athletic organizations to pass on to their coaches their hopes to eliminate illegal contact and make sure game officials act decisively to penalize illegal contact and minimize risk of injuries.

Most coaches like the changes and hope the officials are consistent in calling the illegal hits.

“There were some coaches at the rules interpretation meeting that don't like the rules,” Franklin Regional coach Greg Botta said. “But (participation) numbers around the country are dropping, and safety is reason why.

“The game is going to change. It has changed drastically since I played in high school (Penn Hills in 1970-71) and in college. It's still a physical game, but keeping kids safe is the key.”

Crack-back blocks, picking guys off from the side on returns and targeting a defenseless player will be penalized this year and for years to come.

“What used to be legal, getting the head across the front of the body from the side, is now illegal,” Penn-Trafford coach John Ruane said.

“Now a player must be able to extend their arms to block.

“I like the rules because they are good safety rules.Some of the hardest hits in football are on interception returns, punt returns and crack back blocks on the sidelines when someone is trailing the play. I think it's going to be tough to tell the kids to slow down to get the arms extended.”

The main thing all coaches want from the officials is to be consistent with their calls. These new rules magnify that request.

“I wouldn't want to be an official,” Botta said. “It's a tough enough job.”

The new rules regarding kickoffs say a kicker cannot drive the ball into the ground to create a high bounce on an onside kick. This is meant to protect the receiver, who is looking up, from taking a big hit when he's trying to field the ball.

“We've been instructed to blow the play dead and penalize the team 5 yards if that occurs,” said Mike Gaffney, an official from Hempfield Township who will be working Friday's Greensburg Salem at Hempfield game.

Botta said tackling techniques have changed a lot over the years.

“When I played in high school we were taught to put our face in the chest of our opponent to tackle him,” Botta said. “I received six major concussions, and I don't want to see a kid go through what I've gone through.

“The new tackling technique came from the Seattle Seahawks and Ohio State. If a player is running to his right, the new tackling technique is to hit him with your right shoulder. If he's going left, hit with your left shoulder. We've seen a decrease in head and neck injuries.”

If the new rules are enforced and new techniques are taught properly, the coaches hope the game will continue to strive.

Paul Schofield is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at pschofield@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Schofield_Trib.

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