By Judson Howard, By Referee

August 9, 2022

Photo Credit: Heston Quan

All team A players are set before a snap. Then two backs go in motion. Both are still moving just before it appears the snap is imminent. Is that a foul at that point? Does the play need to be shut down? Or should officials wait unit the ball is snapped before launching a flag?

That scenario highlights the requirement to know the timing of fouls. Put another way, when do you blow your whistle, throw a penalty marker and stop the clock?
There are four intervals in which a foul can occur: before the snap, when the ball is snapped, during a live-ball play and after the ball is dead.

Fouls before the snap. Prime examples are false start, encroachment and illegal snap. When observed, first blow your whistle to prevent further action. Second, throw your penalty marker high into the air (though it doesn’t have to go into outer space) to alert everyone of the foul. Then signal the clock to stop (in some areas, that is to be done even if the clock is not running). Execute those tasks in that order. Again, it is most important to stop further action by preventing a snap.

Fouls when the ball is snapped. Those are not fouls until the ball is put into play. The most common examples are illegal shift, illegal motion and illegal formation. The mechanics here are to allow the play to continue, toss your flag high into the air, cover the play until its normal completion and stop the clock at the end of the down. Your flag need not be thrown to a specific location as penalty enforcement is from the previous spot, the same spot for interval one fouls.

Play 1: All team A players are motionless. Then, two backs go in motion and are still moving when (a) the ball is snapped, (b) team A calls timeout, or (c) A1 false starts. Ruling 1: A live-ball foul in (a). There is no foul in (b) because the ball did not become live. In (c), only the false start is penalized.

Fouls during a live-ball play. There are no dead-ball fouls and no infractions at the snap. So we have a regular play to make rulings. Any fouls now happen during a run, pass or kick play. When you observe a foul, throw your flag to the foul spot. Continue to cover the play until the ball is dead by rule and then signal to stop the clock. Examples during playing action are holding, illegal blocks and pass interference.
In NFHS, no live-ball foul causes the play to end or the clock to stop. The same is true in NCAA with two rare exceptions: a return kick and a punt made beyond the neutral zone (6-3-10b and c).

After the ball is dead. Examples are late hits and excessive celebrations. When seen, toss your flag into the air as penalty enforcement is from the succeeding spot. Stop the clock if it is running.

At the end of plays in those four time frames, report your foul to the referee for the referee to properly enforce the penalty. You can first state if it is a live- or dead-ball foul. Then, give the standard order of foul reporting such as which team, player number, foul spot, etc.

So far we have only covered fouls relative to a snap. The other method to put the ball into play is a free kick. There could be a dead-ball foul before a kickoff as well as fouls when a kickoff is made.

Play 2: K1 is past his free-kick restraining line by two yards when K2 kicks off. Ruling 2: That is a dead-ball foul for encroachment in NFHS. Blow your whistle to stop the action and toss your flag. In NCAA, that is a live-ball foul for offsides. Launch your flag, but permit the play to continue.

There can be other live- or dead-ball fouls when a free kick is made like a pop-up kick in NFHS (6-1-11).

Once the ball is kicked, absent of live- or dead-ball fouls, interval three fouls or touching violations are possible. For example, first touching (NFHS 6-1-7) or illegal touching (NCAA 6-1-3), kick-catch interference (NFHS 6-5-6; NCAA 6-4-1) and an illegal wedge formation in NCAA (6-1-10).

As with a play from scrimmage, there could also be dead-ball fouls after a free-kick down ends.

In summary, you must know when to sound your whistle, when to stop the clock and how to throw your flag when fouls happen in those four intervals.