College players love to imitate their NFL counterparts, and nothing says big-time NFL quarterback (entitled, protected) like the open-field slide to avoid being hit. When Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers does it, they pop up and toss the ball to the official. When college players do it, they may not pop up at all.
The rules of college football define nine defenseless players, from a punt returner awaiting a kick to a player who has been ruled down. A quarterback in the process of sliding isn’t one of them. In fact, making contact with the quarterback’s head in that situation is often perfectly legal as long as the defender doesn’t lead with the crown of his helmet.
As long as that’s the case, college quarterbacks who want to slide like Peyton Manning run the risk of developing neck problems like Manning — or worse.
“I’ve tried to change that on two separate occasions over the past five years,” said ESPN and NBC rules analyst Doug Rhoads, the ACC’s former supervisor of football officiating. “I love the NFL rule. When the QB slides the play is over and you can’t hit him. Why do you put officials and replay officials into this dilemma?”
Changing the college rule would be up to the NCAA’s football rules committee. Duke coach David Cutcliffe is one of 12 members of that group, and the only FBS coach.
Two years ago, college football adopted a rule similar to the NFL’s that protects the quarterback from hits at the knee or below while he’s in a passing posture. It would be easy to once again adopt the NFL’s rule that allows quarterbacks to trade yardage for safety by sliding.
“We have to really dig into this,” Cutcliffe said. “Yes, it’s something that needs to be studied and looked at and be discussed. We’re looking at a rash of quarterback injuries. … Here’s what I would say, as a rules guy: I think that makes sense. But let’s err on the side of the spot toward where they started to slide.”
Cutcliffe is also a very interested party: One of his former quarterbacks, Sean Renfree, narrowly escaped injury in 2012 after suffering a brutal hit to the head, entirely legally, while sliding to the ground. Cutcliffe said he talked to Renfree about not sliding, but for a skinny, 6-foot-5 quarterback, there aren’t many other options to avoid getting hit in the open field.
A defensive player who tries to tackle a sliding quarterback is not only entitled to do so until the quarterback’s knee or shin hits the ground, he’s actually more likely to make helmet-to-helmet contact as the quarterback lowers his head into the hitting area. And as long as the defensive player doesn’t lead with the crown of his helmet, it’s a legal hit.
“I would use the language in the NFL rule,” Rhoads said. “Once the quarterback gives up his opportunity to advance and slides, he can’t be hit. The ball is immediately dead. It’s just a good rule. The NFL has modified the players’ conduct. They know when the QB slides, they can’t hit him. With all the NCAA has done with player safety over the past five or six years, during my time at the ACC, from targeting to the horse collar to chop blocks and low hits on the quarterback, all of those are great rules. This would be another one.”
College quarterbacks obviously are more likely to be running by design, not because they have been forced from the comfort of the pocket. But there’s no obligation to slide, and running quarterbacks would be welcome to initiate contact if they like while less mobile quarterbacks would at least have the option of giving themselves up before being hit.
In an attempt to help quarterback Jacoby Brissett avoid some of the punishment he absorbed last season, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren asked baseball coach Elliott Avent to work with Brissett on his sliding technique during spring practice. Done correctly, that could help Brissett get to the ground more easily. Done at the wrong moment, Brissett might only make things worse.
As things stand in college football, he’s as likely to put himself in harm’s way by sliding as he is to avoid it.