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How a new rulebook will affect Massachusetts high school football

As Milton High (red jerseys) faced Stoughton in a recent scrimmage, the game officials also were getting used to a new set of rules for high school football.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Prior to last Friday’s football scrimmage at Milton High School, Stoughton coach Greg Burke and Milton coach Steve Dembowski met with a 40-year veteran official at midfield to go over rules and regulations.

It is a formality the men have undergone countless times in their combined 90-plus years of varsity football experience, but this season, these pregame meetings have become more important.

Last year, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association approved a proposal to switch all sports to National Federation of State High School Associations rules starting with the 2019-20 school year. It is the first time since Connecticut in 1979 that a state has made the switch, leaving Texas as the lone state that doesn’t play under NFHS rules.


Massachusetts football for decades has been played under NCAA rules, with modifications.

So coaches and game officials now have been tasked with studying the 238 differences between NCAA and NFHS rules to prepare for football season, which starts with games this weekend.

(The New England prep leagues, such as the Independent School League, will continue to follow NCAA rules.)

Notable changes include moving to 12-minute quarters with three timeouts per half, using a 40-second and 25-second play clock between downs, and using wider hash marks to create more open field.

Among other major changes:

■   All kicks that enter the end zone are immediately ruled touchbacks, including field goal attempts from beyond the 20-yard line.

■   Defensive pass interference can be called on a pass that may be deemed “uncatchable.”

■   Intentional grounding can be called if the quarterback exits the pocket and does not throw the ball in the area of an eligible receiver.

■   Teams are allowed to use in-game video replay for sideline instruction.

“[The officials] gave us some tips on what we need to be aware of, so I can at least try to educate my team on a daily basis to discuss rule differences,” Dembowski said. “We’ve been going over a rule a day. But we just don’t have enough time. You could spend an hour a day and not cover enough rules to be ready by the start of the season.”


Beginning last December, the MIAA outlined a plan to familiarize coaches and officials with the new rules, offering educational meetings with presentations from out-of-state referees. The seven independent boards of Massachusetts football officials have held their own meetings throughout the summer.

“There’s a lot of head-shaking going on in these meetings,” said Brian Doherty, president of the Association of New England Football Officials, the largest board in Massachusetts.

“We basically have to learn a new game without a dollar increase in pay. You’re not going to see consistency for a long time. It takes a long time to become a good varsity football official, and now everyone is going back to being a rookie in terms of those common-sense calls.”

Liability and safety issues

The MIAA attempted to make the switch to NFHS rules for football in 1986 and again in 2001. Both times, the MIAA Football Committee dissuaded the board of directors from making the change.

Former St. John’s Prep football coach and athletic director Jim O’Leary was on the Football Committee in 2001. Now the chair of the Tournament Management Committee, O’Leary points to changes in liability law as one of the main reasons the MIAA made the switch.


“The game has changed since 2001,” said O’Leary. “When we played out of state back then, we played federation rules, and they were even more different than they are now.

“When the lawyers said that if someone sues [the MIAA] over an injury, that there is no way we can win in court if we’re not using high school rules for high school students, it’s hard not to vote for federation rules.”

Previously, the Football Committee had full autonomy to vote for any modifications to the NCAA rules for use in Massachusetts. Now the MIAA is one of 50 member associations with one vote on a national committee that requires a two-thirds majority to modify game rules.

“What is critically different is now I have the ability to speak about the opinion of Massachusetts as it pertains to those rules,” said MIAA associate executive director Richard Pearson, the state’s representative on the national committee.

“When we were using NCAA rules, there was no voice for this state. We are one of 50 votes now. We are one of 50 associations that speak about the high school athlete.”

Of the 238 differences, many are designed to increase the safety of the game, such as the rule requiring all blind-side blocking to be initiated with hands out front rather than with a lowered shoulder.

However, NFHS rules allow for three-man blocking wedges on kickoffs, which were banned by the NCAA in 2010. When a player is flagged for “targeting” a defenseless player in the head or above the shoulders, NFHS rules do not call for an automatic ejection.


And the rule restricting quarterbacks from throwing the ball out of bounds to avoid a collision or dangerous throw has many Massachusetts coaches scratching their heads.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to minimize risk within the game,” said Bob Colgate, the NFHS director of sports and sports medicine and staff liaison for football.

When asked if representatives from Massachusetts or other states have protested this rule, Colgate added, “This is a national committee, so one state isn’t going to carry a whole committee. If a state comes in and says they don’t like this rule, my advice is draft a proposal.”

When it comes to changing a rule, there is little Massachusetts can do to tip the scales of the national committee. If the MIAA chooses to amend any NFHS rules, the state could lose its seat on the committee.

Consistency is key

The MIAA’s request to continue playing 11-minute quarters during the season and 10-minute quarters in the state championship games at Gillette Stadium was denied. That could mean some of the eight Super Bowls will have to be played elsewhere because of the extended length of games.

Despite the objections of coaches and officials, who wrote an eight-page letter to the MIAA in February detailing their concerns about the switch, all new rules will be enforced.

“Everyone’s been doing this for years,” said Burke. “The refs don’t want to cause problems. They want the game to go and have a good flow.”


“I know I’m going to ask a lot of questions before [games] to make sure I’m on target. I want clarification, and hopefully each crew of refs has the same clarifications.”

Federation rules also may lead to significant changes in how the game is coached.

In Connecticut, Lou Marinelli has led New Canaan to nine state championships over 39 years. While he’s an old-school coach, Marinelli is taking full advantage of the fact that NFHS rules allow teams to use in-game video replay to instruct positional groups.

Wherever New Canaan travels, the team brings a 60-inch monitor and a tent that its offense can gather in between series.

“It’s been a tremendous help,” said Marinelli. “Some of this technology you’re not allowed to use in the NCAA. But for us, it’s improving the game. It’s great to bring the kids in the tent where they can’t see the crowd, and they’re just focused on game film.”

For now, the biggest challenge will be finding consistency among officiating crews, and maintaining game flow.

“I don’t have a button or a magic wand to guarantee consistency,” said Pearson. “What I will say is there has been constant communication with our board leaders across the state.”

For officials that have to dedicate extra time and money toward learning a new set of rules, communication is not enough. According to Doherty, most of his 80 board members who work as referees at the college level have declined to officiate MIAA games this season.

Coaches may bemoan the loss of those experienced officials, athletic directors may gripe about altering their fields, and fans are certain to holler at refs about the new rules, but football games will still be decided by the athletes.

“I know people are upset,” said O’Leary. “It’s going to be a transition. It’s going to be a learning process, but any change that comes in, people will adapt.

“Everybody needs to just let the kids play.”

Key rule changes for this season

Of the 238 differences, here are the most critical:

■  Both a 40-second and 25-second play clock will be used. If there is an administrative stoppage for change of possession, clock error, or injury, a 25-second play clock will be used.

■ Intentional grounding can be called if the quarterback exits the pocket and does not throw the ball in the area of an eligible receiver.

■  Defensive pass interference can be called whether or not the pass is deemed “catchable,” and results in a 15-yard penalty but not an automatic first down.

■  A touchback occurs when any free kick enters the end zone of the receiving team. This includes missed field goals.

■  There is no restriction on three-man-wedge blocking formations during a kickoff return.

■   A fumble forward that goes out of bounds ahead of the line of gain can result in a first down on fourth down.

■   If a player lines up in the neutral zone, the play is blown dead and a penalty is enforced.

■  Only four penalties result in automatic first downs – roughing the passer, kicker, punter, or snapper.

■   There is no blind-side blocking outside of the free-blocking zone (which extends 4 yards laterally on either side of the ball and 3 yards behind each line of scrimmage). A blind-side block is legal if initiated with open hands.

■  Blocking below the waist is legal only when both the offensive and defensive players and the ball are in the free-blocking zone. In shotgun formations, the block must occur immediately after the snap.

■ Hash marks will be moved from 60 feet to 53 feet 4 inches from each sideline.

■   Technology that can provide in-game video analysis on the sidelines is now allowed.

■   All contests will be played with 12-minute quarters and teams will be given three timeouts per half.

Nate Weitzer can be reached at