Josh Kendall

The biggest small change possible may be coming to college football

A college football offseason riddle: What’s the most important 6 feet in the game and why is nobody talking about them?

The answer to the first question is, believe it or not, the space that separates 1 yard from the line of the scrimmage and 3 yards from the line of scrimmage on the defense’s side of the ball. The answer to the second question is, somebody very important will be soon, and it could change the way the game is played in a radical way.

You think the U.S. Congress is partisan? Walk into a football coaching convention, bring up the ineligible man downfield rule and watch the room part like the Red Sea, offensive coaches on one side and defensive coaches on the other.

“It’s like a Republican-Democrat thing,” said Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of football officials who is soon to be the NCAA’s secretary-rules editor. “If you’re defensive minded, you want it 1 yard. If you’re offensive-minded, you want it 3 yards.”

The NCAA rules committee would like to step into that divide and bring the two sides closer together. In that effort, the ruling body this month issued an extensive survey to college coaches from Division I through Division III asking for their input on the rule.

“We are going to see where the coaches come down on it, and then the rules committee will take it up,” Shaw said. “It’s on the rules committee’s mind. I’m very interested to see what our coaches have to say across the board. Then we will have some data points and figure out where to go.”

Currently, the NCAA rule states an offensive lineman may not be more than 3 yards past the line of scrimmage when a pass is released, and the pro football rule states an offensive lineman may be no more than 1 yard past the line of scrimmage at that time. Believe it or not, the short distance between those two numbers explains as much as anything why college football and pro football look more and more dissimilar and, by extension, why the NFL is bemoaning how unprepared college quarterbacks and offensive linemen are for their version of the game.

College football’s decision on which way to go with its rule, if it makes any changes at all, is as simple and as stark, Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, as this: “It depends on what we’re trying to promote. Are we trying to build NFL players or are we trying to get a lot of points scored?”

That’s because the extra distance is what allows for the flood of run-pass option plays that have taken over almost every college team’s playbook. With 3 yards to work with, offenses can go to the line of scrimmage with two play calls. The offensive line blocks for a running play, driving forward, and the quarterback makes the decision to hand off the ball (or run it himself) or throw a pass based on which way a particular defender commits himself.

“I coach the safeties,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “What do you tell those guys to do? You have an offensive guard running at you and a receiver.”

Changing the college rule to 1 yard would make offenses tip their hands earlier, thus making it easier for defenders to decipher which type of play is coming, as NFL defenses can do. The bellyaching that is permeating the NFL draft process about unprepared offensive linemen and quarterbacks is a direct result of spread offenses and their run-pass option plays that don’t require much versatility in skills from quarterbacks or offensive linemen.

“It is one of those rules that creates run-pass conflict for the defense. Strategically, coaches are using that now,” Shaw said. “That’s part of the cat and mouse of the game. The offense wants to create that run-pass conflict.”

Meanwhile, collegiate defensive coaches believe their offensive counterparts have such wide leeway because of the 3-yard rule that the field is hopelessly sloped against them. Without a change to the ineligible man downfield rule, it’s impossible to consistently stop run-pass option plays, Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

“If they’re not willing to change that…,” he said with a shrug.

That being said, Saban stopped short of calling for a rule change.

“Whatever the rule is, we’ll do it, too,” he said. “So what makes the difference? We’ll run running plays where we throw passes, just like everybody else.”

Alabama did just that this season and led the SEC in scoring with 38.8 points per game.

Any change to college football’s rule wouldn’t come until the 2018 season at the earliest, and it’s possible the rules committee could tweak the rule rather than make a drastic alteration. One change being considered is having the rule state that the offensive lineman’s position will be checked at the time the pass crosses the line of scrimmage instead of when the pass is thrown, as it currently is written. That change would tighten the offense’s window slightly while also making it easier for the line judge to make the call, Shaw said.

Smart believes SEC officials already have taken steps to preserve the conference’s defensive dignity.

“Because we have kind of been a defensive league, our conference and Steve Shaw’s staff have done a tremendous job of pinpointing that and saying, ‘We are not going to let this get out of hand.’ It’s hard to monitor, but they have trained their officials differently now, too,” Smart said. “You get away with it a lot less now than you did 5 years ago.”

Muschamp is not so sure.

“That would be really nice if they enforced that,” the Gamecocks coach said. “They ought to be able to replay it, in my opinion. It’s a fast-moving game. It is a difficult game to officiate as fast as it is right now, but I do think that would be a good replay target.”

Even if college football adopted the NFL’s version of the rule, Shaw doesn’t believe it would eliminate the proliferation of run-pass option plays.

“Our coaches, especially our offensive coaches, are very creative,” he said. “I would tell you if we went to 1 yard, run-pass options would not disappear. They would find ways because it is such a difficult play to defend.”