The umpire is in charge of the line of scrimmage and all the action that takes place in and around it. There are some rules that are of particular importance to the official working that position.
Restrictions on the snapper begin when the ball is ready. The snapper may adjust the ball, but may not move it forward, fail to keep the long axis of the ball at a right angle to the line of scrimmage or simulate a snap. Once he touches the ball, he may remove both hands in NCAA. In NFHS, only one hand may be removed slowly (NFHS 7-1-6b; NCAA 7-1-5a-1).
In a shotgun formation, after adjusting the ball, snapper A1 slowly rises and turns to communicate with the quarterback. In the process, he slowly removes both hands from the ball. Ruling 1: In NFHS, that’s a dead-ball snap infraction, which carries a five-yard penalty (7-1-3a). Legal in NCAA (7-1-3a-3).
Center A1 snaps the ball to A2. The ball touches A2’s hands, but never leaves A1’s hands. A2 fakes having the ball and A3 cuts in, grabs the ball from A2 and runs. Ruling 2: Illegal snap, a dead-ball foul. A snap must leave the snapper’s hands immediately. The penalty is five yards (NFHS 2-40-2; NCAA 2-23-1a).
When center A1 moves the ball, nose guard B2 slaps the ball out of A1’s hand, causing a loose ball. B3 recovers. A1’s movement of the ball was (a) forward, or (b) backward. Ruling 3: In both cases, the ball remains dead. It is an illegal snap in (a). In a legal snap, the ball must be moved backward. The penalty is five yards. In (b), B2 is guilty of encroachment (NFHS) or offside (NCAA).
In order to correctly judge the legality of the blocking they observe, umpires must be cognizant of blocking zones and where players are at the snap with respect to the zones. In NFHS, the free-blocking zone is a rectangular area extending laterally four yards on either side of the snap and three yards behind each scrimmage line (2-17-1). The NCAA blocking zone is a rectangle centered on the middle lineman of the offensive formation and extending five yards laterally and three yards longitudinally in each direction (2-3-6a). For the rest of this column, those will be referred to simply as the “zone.”
In NFHS, blocking below the waist is permitted within the zone when all players involved in the blocking are on the line of scrimmage and in the zone at the snap, the contact is in the zone and the block is an immediate, initial action following the snap.
In NCAA, offensive players who are on the line of scrimmage at the snap within the zone legally may clip in the zone, as long as the force of the initial contact is not at or below the knee. Linemen with initial position completely inside the tackle box (the rectangular area enclosed by the neutral zone, the two lines parallel to the sidelines five yards from the snapper and team A’s endline) may block below the waist inside the tackle box until the ball leaves the tackle box. All other team A players are allowed to block below the waist only if the force of the initial contact is directed from the front. “Directed from the front” is defined as within the clock face region between “10 o’clock and 2 o’clock” forward of the area of concentration of the player being blocked. Team A players may not block below the waist when the block occurs five yards or more beyond the neutral zone. Players outside the tackle box at the snap, or any time after the snap, or in motion at the snap may not block below the waist toward the original position of the ball at the snap. Once the ball has left the tackle box, a player may not block below the waist toward his own endline.
Roughing the snapper.
When the offense uses a scrimmage-kick formation, the snapper cannot be contacted until he has had a reasonable opportunity to regain his balance and protect himself (NFHS), or one second has elapsed after the snap (NCAA). The penalty is 15 yards and an automatic first down (NFHS 9-4-6; NCAA 9-1-14).
Entire books have been devoted to the rules and philosophies regarding holding. In a nutshell, umpires need to recognize the six types of holding: the pullover, tackle, takedown, hook and restrict, grab and restrict, and jerk and restrict. If any of those acts occur at the point of attack or have a material affect on the play, they should result in a 10-yard penalty.
Other illegal blocks.
Several blocking techniques are always illegal, regardless of the situation. A chop block is a delayed block at the knees or below (NFHS) or at the thighs and below (NCAA) against an opponent already in contact with a teammate of the blocker. In NCAA, it is not a foul if the blockers’ opponent initiates contact. The block is illegal when the opponent is first blocked high and, with or without a delay, a teammate’s block is made below the waist.
In NFHS, illegal helmet contact is an act of initiating contact with the helmet against an opponent. Butt blocking, face tackling and spearing are examples of illegal helmet contact. A blindside block is a block against an opponent other than the runner. A blindside block inside the free-blocking zone is legal, but it is a foul if the block is outside the free-blocking zone with forceful contact not initiated with open hands. Interlocked blocking is grasping a teammate while blocking. In NFHS, all of those blocks carry 15-yard penalties except for interlocked blocking, which is 10 yards. In NCAA, the penalties are 15 yards and include an automatic first down if committed by team B. Interlocked interference results in a five-yard penalty.