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How the ineligible man downfield rule works in college football

The NCAA rule is more restrictive than the NFL equivalent, but it’s not always called tightly.

Maybe you’ve just seen a college football offense get penalized for having an ineligible man downfield. The officials have decided that some offensive player who wasn’t supposed to be more than three yards downfield at the time of a pass was, in fact, more than three yards downfield at the time of a pass.

What is college football’s ineligible man-downfield rule?

Straight from the NCAA rulebook:

No originally ineligible receiver shall be or have been more than three yards beyond the neutral zone until a passer throws a legal forward pass that crosses the neutral zone. A player is in violation of this rule if any part of his body is beyond the three-yard limit.

The penalty for an ineligible man downfield is that the offensive moves back five yards from the previous spot, with the down repeated.

An “ineligible receiver” is almost always an offensive lineman. Someone else could be ineligible if he lined up directly on the line of scrimmage but not on the end of the line. As long as there’s nobody lined up outside of that guy and also on the line, he’s eligible. Teams are only allowed to have five eligible receivers on any given play. Except in weird circumstances, those are wideouts, tight ends, and running backs.

Why does the NCAA have this rule?

The rule limits how much offenses can deceive defenses about whether a play is a run or a pass. The proliferation of run/pass options over the last few years has made this rule a huge deal. By being allowed to move three yards beyond the line of scrimmage before a pass, offensive linemen can do their usual run-blocking, and quarterbacks can decide a second or two later whether to hand the ball off or throw it.

How is college’s rule different than the NFL’s?

The NFL only gives offensive linemen one yard downfield before a pass. The result is that NFL RPOs are structured differently, with QBs required to make faster decisions. Plenty of college coaches — usually ones with defensive backgrounds — would prefer the NCAA adopt the NFL’s 1-yard-downfield rule. The NCAA has considered that.

Let me see an example of a penalty.

Here’s a USC lineman negating a touchdown pass by being six yards downfield against Arizona State in 2017:

How often is this rule enforced?

Not even close to all the time. You can watch just about any college game and see offensive linemen hanging out between four and eight yards downfield when the QB releases a pass. The rule is called more tightly in the pros, and linemen stay closer to home.