New Big 12 Coordinator Of Football Officials Makes Safety A Priority
FRISCO, Texas — In his first address to the media as the Big 12 Coordinator of Officials, Greg Burks went through a number of rule changes for the 2018 college football season. In many ways, they clarify and clean up some loopholes in existing rules, though in others they may cause even more confusion.
One of the chief drivers in a number of the rule changes is player safety.
Targeting has been a part of the focus on safety in recent years. The college rule for targeting was initially implemented in 2013.
“The focus of targeting over the last few years has been paramount in college football,” said Burks. “I think we’re making strides. We have a national replay clinic where we bring in the replay officials, and we spent a lot of time working on that this summer. There are no changes this year; it’s illegal to use the crown of the helmet. So if I draw a circle around the helmet above the facemask all the way around, that’s by definition the crown.
“Also you can’t hit a defenseless player above the shoulders with any part of your body. That sounds simpler than it is.”
The defensive player is admittedly put in a tough spot when it comes to targeting, especially because movement by the offensive player doesn’t change how the rule is applied
“Offensive movement is not part of the rule,” note Burks. “That’s the hard thing to tell coaches. ‘How do I coach that? What do I teach a defensive player?’ But for the safety of the game and the growth of this game, if we are going to make some mistakes and disqualify some players who might not deserve to be disqualified to make sure we are going to take targeting out of the game, that’s probably the outcome we have to have. In the margin, we’d rather have targeting (flagged) than not.”
The targeting rule won’t change this year, but the kickoff is definitely being altered.
“In an effort to make kickoffs safer, we’ve added a free kick/fair catch rule,” stated Burks. “On a kickoff that is fair caught inside the 25-yard line, that team will now get the ball at the 25.
“All of the data that we have says that we have more injuries on kickoffs because of the distance that players are running, so the Rules Committee is trying to figure out how to write the rules so we still have balance in the game without doing away with kickoffs while still providing safety for the receiving team. We went to touchbacks going to the 25 (a few years ago) and teams have become more proficient at the pooch kick putting it inside the 25, so we’re giving the receiving team the opportunity to make a fair catch, just like they do on a punt, and take the ball at the 25. That will be a new wrinkle this year that we hope will encourage the ball to just be kicked through the end zone and we have a touchback.
“I’ve been asked, ‘Why don’t you do way with the kickoff then?’” he continued. “The problem is, how do we give the kicking team an opportunity to get the football back with an onside kick when they are behind in the game? Smarter minds than mine will have to work out how that happens more effectively. But this is the first attempt to try to give teams an opportunity to be at the 25 and limit contact on kickoffs.”
Also in an attempt to make the game safer, officials are going to become stricter when it comes uniforms, especially making sure the knees are covered and the backplates of the shoulder pads are not exposed.
“Over the last few years the spectrum has moved toward leniency,” explained Burks. “This year players will have to be legally equipped, and where you’re going to see that play out the most, I think, in the first couple of weeks, is that knees have to be covered this year. We have seen in the last couple of years players not covering their knees. For both safety concerns and just for the look of the game, officials will enforce this year that knees must be covered. Upon identifying players who’s knees are not covered, that player will be sent out of the game and will have to cover their knees before they can come back in.
“As well as covering the knees, the mid-jerseys are no longer legal,” added Burks, who replaces Walter Anderson as the Big 12’s coordinator of officials. Anderson took a full-time position with the NFL. “The rule book is clear that the jersey has to reach the pant level or be tucked in. We will also be sending players out if they fail to have the jersey down. The rationale for that is when you push the jerseys up, you can’t see numbers and we need to see the entire number. There’s also been a trend for t-shirts to be hanging out underneath the jersey. We’re looking for those to be the same color as the jersey. If they’re not, we’re going to ask the player to tuck that in. If they refuse at some point they will be sent off as well.
“Finally, the back pad that has been exposed quite a bit in the last few years. That has to be covered. That’s pretty simple. You can grab the jersey and pull it down.
“So we’re going to enforce pretty stringently these rules, and I would anticipate within the first week or two we may be seeing a few players sent off. But I think after the first couple of weeks everybody hopefully will get on board, and it won’t become an issue.”
Burks comes to the Big 12 with a wealth of experience. For the last three seasons he served in the coordinator of officials in the Mountain West Conference. He will continue those duties with the MWC, as well as overseeing the Southland Conference, in conjunction with his Big 12 duties. A veteran official of 24 years, he worked his way up to a crew chief position in the Big 12 during a career that ran from 1996-2014. The referee for the first College Football Playoff national championship game, Burks also called 17 bowl games and four Big 12 championship contests.