COLUMN: Hard Hitting Rules Changing High School Football

No one knows what the sport of football is going to look like in five years, but if the recent rule changes at every level are any indication, it’s going to look a lot less physical in the future.

For the record, I am a life-long football fan who understands that CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and head trauma is a safety issue the sport needs to addressed more actively.

Instead of making penalty flags more prevalent, I propose taking the helmets out of the game, and replacing the pads with softer shells. If players can’t lead with their heads, they will be in less danger. Just ask rugby players.

Anyway, the CIF Southern Section has implemented a rule this season that limits high school football teams to 45 minutes of full-contact practice a week. This will obviously cut down on the number of times linemen bang heads over the entire season. However, it doesn’t solve the problem.

There aren’t CIF police making sure teams aren’t doing full-speed hitting drills all week, although the local teams I’ve visited are strictly adhering to the guideline for multiple reasons.

“You see the depth now-a-days in high school football?” Millikan coach Justin Utupo asked me last week. “You gotta be careful with those hitting drills. We just don’t have the guys to do that rodeo stuff. You’re asking for concussions.”

By “rodeo stuff” Utupo means the classic Oklahoma and Bull-In-The-Ring drills that put teammates head-to-head at full speed in confined spaces. In my opinion, this ancient practice of weeding out the weak with violence is just not sustainable for the health and prosperity of any high school football team. Yes, the game is violent, but there are smarter, more effective ways to learn good football skills.

“Obviously you want them to be safe, but you have to teach tackling,” Utupo said. “If there’s a player who we feel needs more time to work on tackling, we’ll have a plan for him. You can still get your tackling done in (individual practice) because defensive linemen are going to do different tackling drills than linebackers. You erase missed tackles with your identity, and that’s flying and swarming to the ball.”

At Wilson, coach Mark Ziegenhagen is using a “trial by error” approach with scheduling.

“If we go full team for 20 minutes, we can only hit for 25 minutes the rest of the week,” Ziegenhagen said. “I think a lot of coaches feel like that’s not enough time to teach technique. It’s changing how we practice.”

Wilson has been in shells (helmet, pads and shorts) for most of their practices to cut down on players hitting the ground during drills. The Bruins are also running more offensive team drills with upside down trash cans replacing defenders.

“We’re going to stay within the rules of the safety of the kids,” said Ziegenhagen, who has a son on the team.

Any changes in the amount of practice contact don’t take into account the shift in officiating that’s happening at all levels of football.

For example, I was at a local practice last week where the head coach brought in a high school referee for a rules discussion with his team. The referee explained sportsmanship and equipment rules before addressing the “unnecessary roughness” elephant in the room.

Specifically in instances when an offensive player is vulnerable and not looking at the defender, the referee said the resulting violent hits are something, “we’re trying to get out of the game.”

His example was a swing pass out of the backfield. If the running back is looking to catch the ball, and a defensive back is closing in fast from the blind side, the referee advised players to lead with their hands instead of their shoulders and head. Any hard hit in that instance would bring a penalty flag.

You read that right. Lead with their hands.

One of the assistant coaches listening made a face that looked like a child learning where his Christmas presents actually come from.

“But sir, we’ve always taught our kids to lead with their shoulders, and put their heads on the correct side,” the assistant said.

“Right, but we’re trying to get that unnecessary roughness out of the game,” the referee responded.

So, the sport of football is at a crossroads. It can continue to limit and penalize physical parts of the game that happen in the natural flow of a play. Or, it can make drastic changes to equipment in order to maintain continuity.

In other words, 45-minute limitations and 15-yard penalties aren’t going to fix football’s safety problem. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution.

JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.