Focus on Free Kicks

You are the referee for tonight’s game. You have completed the pregame conference with your crew, met with the head coaches and conducted the coin toss. Now you hustle into position for the opening kickoff. While you have probably performed that routine hundreds of times and taken it for granted, there is a long list of action items that need to be processed in order to properly administer and cover the first play of the game.


When you review the results of the coin toss with your crew make sure you know to which end zone you are headed. The last thing you need is to embarrass yourself by having to run a 100-yard dash to get to the correct end of the field. Position yourself on team R’s goalline between the center of the field and the hashmarks on the head linesman’s side. Since the head linesman is at team R’s 30 yardline and the umpire on team R’s 20 yardline, the prevailing thought is that there is potentially more ground to cover on the chain side of the field. While that is the recommendation in the mechanics manual, you should use your discretion to alter your position based on several factors. Observe the kicker during pregame warmups to determine how deep he is kicking the ball and if he is favoring one side of the field. As the game progresses you will have the benefit of observing tendencies from previous kicks. Adjustments should also be made based on weather conditions and game situations.

Counting team R players

When counting, try do so without finger pointing. It just looks better that way. Confirm your count with the umpire and head linesman. If there are fewer or more than 11 players, the official on the sideline of the receiving team should let them know. However, the ready signal should not be delayed significantly for that purpose.

Verifying that at least four team K players are positioned on either side of the kicker

While that responsibility falls to the referee, in the pregame meeting I ask the back judge and line judge — who are positioned much closer to where that infraction would occur — to practice preventive officiating. I don’t want to have to throw a flag from a position 60 yards away.

Acknowledge that other crew members are ready

You certainly don’t want the kick to be made without the full attention of the entire crew. Instead of having to acknowledge each of the other four officials individually I have implemented a team approach on my high school crew. Each of the other two downfield officials takes responsibility for the respective upfield official on his sideline. For example, the umpire will not raise his arm until the line judge is ready and the head linesman will wait until the back judge has declared he is ready. That way I only need to observe the two officials closest to me before proceeding. A similar approach could be adopted for a college crew or a high school crew with more than five members.

Blow the ready

Give a visible indication as well as blow a strong whistle to notify both teams that the ball is about to be put in play. That will also alert whomever is responsible for the play clock that the 25-second count should commence.

Adjust positioning based on direction and depth of kick

If the kick appears it will travel as far as the goalline, straddle that line and maintain a position that will allow you to face the receiver while keeping a safe distance from him. Be prepared to start the clock if the ball is legally touched in the field of play. Also, in NCAA if the ball is touched inflight in the end zone, the clock will start when the ball crosses the goalline going back into the field of play. Keep in mind that the entire goalline is part of the end zone and that it is the position of the ball and not the player’s feet that matters.

When the kick is short of the end zone, bouncing around and possibly muffed several times, be sure to maintain your concentration as well as your position on the goalline. The ruling will still be a touchback should the ball break the plane of the goalline unpossessed in NFHS. In NCAA, it will be a touchback if the ball, untouched by team R touched the ground in the end zone.

If the kick is headed toward the pylon, move in that direction to determine if the ball breaks the plane. The umpire or head linesman will retreat toward the goalline with responsibility for determining if the kick crosses the sideline. Should the ball leave the field of play close to the intersection of those two lines, the covering official should make eye contact and if necessary collaborate to determine whether the ball crossed the sideline or the goalline first. When in doubt, rule a touchback.

Signal the game clock to start when the ball is legally touched

Unless there is a squib kick that continues to bounce untouched toward the goalline, more than 10 yards from where it was kicked, it is highly unlikely that the ball will be touched by a member of the kicking team. Should that occur, howeverthe ball can be legally recovered by team K since it has made contact with the ground and traveled at least 10 yards. That will prompt the referee to wind the clock. When the ball is legally touched and the clock is to be started, give three clear winds so the clock operator sees your signal. If the ball is then possessed by team K, that signal will immediately be followed by a whistle and a stop-the-clock signal because team K cannot advance a kick. Should the ball be touched by team K and not downed at that spot, continue to officiate the play as either team can recover.

In a high school game, rule a touchback should the ball break the plane of team R’s goalline. That is different from the college game, in which a kick untouched by team K that touches the ground in the end zone is dead and results in a touchback. Another difference in NCAA: If the ball is muffed by team R in the field of play and the ball goes into the end zone, team R must recover it to prevent team K from recovering it for a touchdown. If team R recovers, the ball may be downed for a touchback or advanced.

Ball entering the end zone following possession

Once the ball is possessed in the field of play and the clock is started, you will move to cover the play. However, keep in mind that there are scenarios in which you will still have responsibility for the goalline. For example, should the runner retreat and reverse direction to avoid potential tacklers, he might enter the end zone. Be aware the ball remains live. Should the runner while in the end zone step on the sideline or endline, is tackled there or the ball becomes dead there because any part of his body other than a hand or foot touches the ground, it is a safety.

The momentum rule

Observe where the receiver catches or recovers the ball. If it is between team R’s five yardline and the goalline and his original momentum takes him into the end zone, drop a beanbag at the spot where possession was gained. Should the ball remain in the end zone and be declared dead in his team’s possession there or it goes out of bounds in the end zone, the ball belongs to team R at the spot where the kick was caught or recovered.

Cover the goalline on a change of possession

Should there be a fumble by a team R player on the return and a member of team K recovers the ball, he is allowed to advance since the kick has ended and it is now a running play. If on the subsequent return the goalline is threatened, it is your responsibility to make the call.

Don’t let the kicking team advance a muff

Should a receiver muff the ball, it is still a kick and if the ball is recovered by a member of the kicking team it cannot be advanced. I have seen that play officiated incorrectly on several occasions. If not stopped immediately it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and let the action continue. A good way to avoid that pitfall is to mentally identify the uniform color of the kicking team prior to giving the ready for play signal and remind yourself that a player wearing that color cannot advance a muffed kick.

Kick out of bounds

On deep kicks where you are in a position to help with the sideline, be prepared to rule on a kick out of bounds if you are closer to the spot than the head linesman. If the kick bounces out of bounds or crosses the sideline in flight untouched by team R, drop a beanbag at the spot and then throw the flag in the air to signify the foul.

Move to cover play

As you move to cover the play, stay in your primary area and be careful not to get too close to the runner or other players. The runner can reverse field and you don’t want to get caught up in the play. On a kick down the middle, pick up the runner and follow him until releasing to the covering official. On a kick outside the opposite hashmark, move cautiously with the play, observe action of other players in the vicinity of the runner and serve as clean-up behind, to the side of and around the runner. Be alert for fouls committed by either team. Regardless of whether the ball becomes dead inbounds or out of bounds, you will be blowing the whistle and signaling timeout if you are the covering official. If another crew member is primary, it is helpful to echo the timeout signal for the benefit of the clock operator.

Watch for illegal blocks and other fouls

Kicking plays have a higher percentage of fouls called than basic scrimmage plays due to movement by almost all of the players as well as the action taking place over a much wider coverage area. It is imperative to stay focused in your primary area as the openfield blocking lends itself to players being engaged in significant levels of contact. The illegal activities typical of kicking plays are holding, blocks in the back, blocks below the waist, blindside blocks and targeting. Try to position your flag as close to the foul as possible since the penalty may be enforced as a spot foul. Action on the facemask or a horse-collar tackle. College referees must be cognizant of the wedge. It is illegal for two or more members of the receiving team to intentionally form a wedge for the purpose of blocking for the runner after the ball has been kicked, except when the kick is from an obvious onside kick formation. Other exceptions may also apply.

Clean up on long returns

Should the runner break away for a long return, continue to officiate the action behind the play. That is a situation where a player who is looking for someone to hit may take a cheap shot at an opponent who is no longer involved with the play.

Be prepared to assist with ball exchange

On a crew of five, the umpire will typically get the receiving team’s ball from the ball assistant and spot it. The referee often will be near the dead-ball spot and will assist with taking the kicking team’s ball out of play by relaying it to the line judge.

Onside kick

The game situation may make it obvious an onside kick is coming while at other times you may be caught by surprise. There are also various configurations of that play. An onside-kick attempt can be executed as a short kick designed to travel just past team R’s restraining line or it can be a pooch kick designed to land beyond the first wave of team R players. When an onside kick is obvious late in the game, most crews of five will use four officials to box in the 10-yard neutral zone on both sides of the field. That maximizes coverage in the event of a short kick. While it’s tempting for the referee to move up the field, he still has responsibility for the goalline should a deep kick occur. Additionally, he needs to be able to assist with the sideline should the kick be in that direction. It is recommended he start from the 10 yardline. If a pooch kick is made, the referee likely will need to hustle to get in position to pick up the runner and any downfield action since the rest of the crew will be much further upfield.

Steven Epstein lives in Boca Del Mar, Fla. He has officiated football for more than 40 years at various levels, including high school and small college.

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