Ask the Official: Possession of the catch, not first touch, designates a touchback on kick

By Bill LeMonnier | Posted 10/29/2018

In high school football on a kickoff, a player on the receiving team catches the ball at the 1-yard line and his momentum carries him into the end zone. Is this a dead ball touchback, or does the player have to bring the ball out?

The key is possession. If the player clearly had possession at the 1-yard line, then his momentum backed him into the end zone, the play is live. If the player takes a knee in the end zone at that point, the ball comes out to the 1.

If momentum carries a player into the end zone, odds are possession isn't complete. This would result in a touchback as under NFHS rules any kicked ball that is not in a player's possession that carries across the goal line is automatically a touchback.

This is a judgment call by the game officials.

Can an offensive lineman be ineligibly downfield if the quarterback becomes a runner?

No. By rule, an ineligible player can only be illegally downfield on a pass that goes beyond the line of scrimmage. Once the quarterback is sacked or crosses the line of scrimmage as a ball-carrier, anyone downfield is a legal blocker.

Following a defensive penalty as time expires, the offense is awarded an untimed down. The offense scores on the ensuing play to tie the game. Is that team allowed to also kick the point-after to win the game?

Yes. Any penalty accepted with the clock at zero at the end of the half or fourth quarter necessitates an untimed down. Also, any team that scores a touchdown during a play in which the clock expires is awarded the chance to attempt an extra point.

An extra-point attempt is awarded to the scoring team regardless of how much time is or is not left. However, at the NCAA and high school levels, if the extra point has no impact on the final outcome of the game, there’s no kick. From the scenario described, it would impact the outcome.

In the Browns-Steelers game on Sunday, the Browns were called for holding in the end zone, resulting in a safety. On the ensuing free kick, an upback signaled for a fair catch but the returner let the ball hit the ground and roll, eventually being recovered by Cleveland. Two questions:

  • Can a player who is not attempting to catch a kick signal fair catch?
  • Coming off a safety, if a team punts the ball, is the ball live like a kickoff or does it fall under the rules like a punt?

Any player on the return team can signal for a fair catch, and it applies to all members of the team.

And regardless of how a team kicks the ball following a safety, it is a free kick, not a punt, so it is treated similarly to a kickoff.

USA Football Rules Editor Bill LeMonnier is a former college referee who currently serves as an ESPN NCAA rules analyst. Click here to ask Bill a question. Make sure to put “Ask the Official” in the subject line.