The NCAA introduced the concept of a defenseless player in 2008, at the same time the first targeting rule was adopted. The NFHS followed suit in 2014. A defenseless player is defined as a player who, because of his physical position and focus of concentration, is especially vulnerable to injury (NFHS 2-32-16; NCAA 2-27-14).
There are slight differences in the examples of defenseless players, with the NCAA offering 11 scenarios and NFHS eight. However, the two codes utilize the definition of a defenseless player differently.
Under NCAA rules, a defenseless player is a key element in targeting. While all players are protected from forcible contact by an opponent who uses the crown of his helmet (9-1-3), it is a targeting foul only if an opponent takes aim and attacks the head and neck area with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle, a legal block or playing the ball, and involving a defenseless player (9-1-4). The distinction is crucial because the penalty for targeting includes disqualification and is subject to various types of replay review depending on whether or not instant replay is utilized.
In NFHS play, using the crown of the helmet to strike an opponent is a spearing foul (2-20-1c), while contacting any opponent by taking aim above the shoulders is a targeting foul (2-20-2). Disqualification is not a part of either penalty unless the foul is judged to be flagrant. Consequently, all players are protected from targeting and a defenseless player is primarily a point of emphasis. Officials need to recognize defenseless players and must be especially vigilant for fouls against them with consideration given to disqualification.
Myths and misconceptions about the rules often crop up and the targeting rule has spawned “it’s a foul to contact a defenseless player.” Contacting a defenseless player can be legal, but it is a foul if the contact is otherwise prohibited by rule.
Here is a summary of some of the more likely fouls that can occur against a defenseless player.
Passers. The vulnerability of a passer has been recognized for years with a special enforcement of roughing the passer fouls. Defensive players must make a definite effort to avoid charging into a passer or avoid throwing him to the ground after it is clear (obvious) the ball has been thrown (NFHS 9-4-4; NCAA 9-1-9). The onus of responsibility for avoiding the foul rests with the defensive players — they must attempt to avoid illegal contact.
The key phrase in the rule is “after it is clear that the ball has been thrown.” The rule does not specify any time or distance requirement, which makes the determination a judgment call. Such judgment should be based on whether the defender knew (or should have known) that the ball had been released when the rusher arrived at a point at which he could not avoid contact. In NFHS, a player who is blocked into the passer is not exempted from a foul; the exemption does exist for NCAA.
In NCAA only, when a passer has one or both feet on the ground, no defensive player rushing unabated may hit him forcibly at the knee area or below, nor initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer at the knee area or below.
Additionally, any personal foul against a passer is treated as roughing, which includes a 15-yard penalty with an automatic first down and in many cases can be tacked on to the end of the play.
An example of legal contact against a defenseless passer is when a clean tackle is initiated just as the ball is being released and either the tackler does not realize the pass has been thrown or he cannot possibly stop once he realizes the ball has been released.
Such players include those who are attempting to catch or recover a kick, or who have completed a catch or recovery and have not had time to protect themselves or have not clearly become a ball carrier. Those players also have received special protection for a long period.
The opportunity to catch a kick applies whether or not a fair catch signal is given. Kicking-team players must not obstruct the receiver’s path to the ball if, in the judgment of the covering official, he is located where he could catch the kick and is attempting to do so. Under NFHS rules, there is no specific distance requirement; however in NCAA play, kicking-team players cannot enter the area defined by the width of the receiver’s shoulders and extending one yard in front of him (6-4-1b).
If a player of the kicking team touches the ball, obstructs the receiver, or contacts him while the kick is in flight, it is a foul for interference and the penalty is 15 yards from the spot of the foul (in NFHS, the penalty can also be enforced from the previous spot with a replay of the down).
If the kick returner gives a valid fair catch signal, he is protected from all contact. An example of legal contact against a defenseless kick returner is when a valid signal is not given and the ball is muffed and no longer can be caught. A kicking team player vying for the ball can make contact as long as he does not commit a personal foul or target.
The exposure of an airborne receiver, including interceptors, attempting to catch a pass and who has not had time to clearly become a runner, was a primary factor in the development of the targeting rule. The rules allow a defender to attempt to break up a pass catch by timing a hit to make contact as the ball arrives or by jarring the ball loose after the receiver secures control. Premature contact is pass interference. These plays are a recipe for both hits above the shoulder and the use of the head as a weapon. Officials must be especially vigilant for illegal contact and must also be aware that one angle may provide an erroneous view of what transpired. A discussion with another covering official is usually essential.
An example of legal contact against a defenseless pass receiver is when he catches the ball and is brought to the ground with a wrap-up tackle.
The other defenseless players include runners whose forward progress has been stopped and those players who are subjected to unnecessary or excessive contact including blindside blocks.
Roughing the kicker.
Roughing the kicker is a devastating penalty because it mandates a change of possession. Instead of giving up the ball, team K gets to keep it with 15 free yards and a first down.
NCAA and NFHS rules generally agree on roughing the kicker. A defensive player may not block, tackle or charge into the kicker of a scrimmage kick unless the contact is slight and is partially caused by the movement of the kicker, or contact is unavoidable and it is not reasonably certain a kick will be made. Incidental contact is not a foul. Also, it is not a foul if contact is caused by the defense being blocked into the kicker by an opponent.
A key difference in the codes involves blocking or touching the kick. In NFHS, it is not a foul if the defense touches the kick near the kicker and contact is unavoidable. In NCAA, only the player who actually contacts the ball is exempt from a foul.
Finally, a player may be charged with running into the kicker if the kicker is displaced from his kicking position, but is not roughed. When in question, the foul is “roughing.”