By Judson Howard
It is the dream of most offensive linemen to have a chance to run with the ball. In many cases, if possession was obtained after a fumble or muff, the lineman’s fantasy comes true. But if an offensive lineman or other ineligible receiver is first to touch a legal forward pass, the dream becomes a nightmare. It is known as illegal touching.
Illegal touching applies to legal forward passes behind or beyond the line. At the snap, eligible receivers are those in the backfield or on the end of the line with a number 1 to 49 or 80 to 99 (NFHS 7-5-6; NCAA 7-3-3). Interior linemen (regardless of number) and ends or backs numbered 50 to 79 are ineligible at the snap. Unlike the pro game, players numbered 50 to 79 inclusive cannot report to the referee to become eligible receivers.
In NFHS, the penalty for illegal touching is five yards from the basic spot and loss of down (7-5-13 Pen). In NCAA, the penalty is five yards from the previous spot with no loss of down (7-3-11 Pen).
Illegal touching is a positive act. Being touched by the pass is not a foul.
Play 1: First and 10 at team A’s 20 yardline. A forward pass hits guard A1’s back as he is blocking at team A’s 16 yardline. Ruling 1: Even though A1 is an ineligible receiver, there is no foul because A1 did not catch, bat or muff the pass.
If any team B player first touches a legal forward pass, all team A players become eligible (NFHS 7-5-6b; NCAA 7-3-5). In NCAA, a pass first touching an official makes everyone eligible as well.
In NCAA, a receiver can lose eligibility if he voluntarily goes out of bounds and is the first to touch a forward pass inbounds (7-3-4). That illegal touching penalty is loss of down at the previous spot with no loss of yardage. In NFHS, a player who is eligible at the snap remains eligible throughout the down (7-5-6d). Eligibles who go out of bounds on their own and return are guilty of illegal participation (9-6-2). Eligibles who go out of bounds as a result of contact by team B remain eligible if they return inbounds at the first opportunity (NFHS 9-6-1; NCAA 7-3-4 Exc).
Play 3: Eligible receiver A1 (a) is pushed out of bounds by B2, or (b) steps on the sideline. He returns to the field immediately, catches a pass at team A’s 30 yardline and runs into team B’s end zone. Ruling 3: In (a), since A1 was forced out and returned immediately, he remains eligible. The score counts. In (b), A1 is guilty of illegal participation (NFHS) or illegal touching (NCAA). In NFHS, the 15-yard penalty is enforced from the spot of the foul. In NCAA, it is loss of down at the previous spot.
Judson Howard, Los Angeles, officiated more than 20 years, many at the NCAA Division I level.