ATHENS, Ga. — Tim Beard is not bragging. He’s warning me.
“Of all the positions,” the veteran SEC line judge says, “we watch more people and more things prior to the snap.”
It’s Friday night. On Saturday afternoon, I’ll be thrown into the Georgia spring game with a whistle around my neck, stripes on my shirt and an L on my back. For much of Friday night and much of Saturday morning, Beard will remind me of all the people and things I must watch. When I take my position on the line of scrimmage on the first play of the second series on Saturday afternoon, I will forget them all.
For the third consecutive season, the SEC invited a group of us who write and talk about college football to attempt to officiate a spring game. The idea is for us to have a little more empathy when we see a controversial call and a lot more understanding of how the officials reach their conclusions. I never considered myself overly critical of officials. I always appreciated that their job was difficult and thankless. But after spending a little more than half a spring game as a working line judge, I came to a different conclusion.
Their jobs are nearly impossible. I don’t know how anyone does it, but bless the people brave enough who stand out there in stripes for the rest of us to judge.
I realize that Beard started officiating when I was in diapers and has worked in the SEC since 2006, so he should have much of this committed to muscle memory by now. But the sheer volume of what he must assess and compute before, during and after a play is mind-blowing. Each official has his own set of responsibilities. The umpire must watch for holding and also avoid getting clobbered by double-teaming offensive linemen or used as a pick by a crossing slot receiver. The field judge must ensure the defense has 11 players on every single play and haul tail to the goal line on any deep pass. The referee must maintain order, communicate with every member of the crew and communicate what is happening to the players and coaches on the field, the thousands of people in the stadium and the millions watching at home.
But Beard probably is correct. Of all the officials, the line judge and the head linesman—his counterpart at the line of scrimmage on the other sideline—must pay attention to the most different things. Here is a list of all I was supposed to do:
• Make sure my down marker, a velcro wrist strap with a string that goes around the number of fingers corresponding to the down, is correct.
• Make sure there are no more than four players in the backfield.
• Make sure the end man on the line of scrimmage (usually a receiver split wide) isn’t covering up a player wearing an eligible number on the line of scrimmage (usually a tight end) and rendering him ineligible.
• Find my key by looking at the players lined up to my side. If it’s a balanced formation, I have the tailback. If it’s a trips formation to my side, I have the second receiver until he gets into his route. When he does, I scan back toward the line of scrimmage.
• If the receiver nearest me is off the line of scrimmage, I hold a fist toward the backfield so the head linesman can keep his count on the other side. If the two outside receivers are off the line of scrimmage, I hold out two fingers.
• I have the call if an offensive player to my side false starts or if a defensive player jumps offsides. If it’s an offensive player, I must blow the whistle, drop my marker (the flag), kill the clock (waving hands above my head). I then must report the number of the offender to the referee and to the coaches on the sideline. If it’s a defensive player (and he doesn’t touch anyone), I must remember to drop my flag and let the play go. The offensive players wouldn’t be pleased if I blew their free play dead.
With Georgia’s offense, we had 15–20 seconds to process all that and do all that I’ll list for the post-play resposibilities. If we’d been at the Auburn spring game, we’d have had between eight and 10 seconds.
During the play
• I follow my key (usually the tailback). If the play comes to my side, I need to be prepared to spot the ball where the ballcarrier gets tackled.
• I must signal on any ball exchange other than a handoff. I punch my fist back on a backward pass and forward on a forward pass. Had I been an actual official, I’d have been wearing the official-to-official radio. I would have verbalized whether the pass was caught behind or beyond the line of scrimmage. I’d also look for ineligible numbers beyond three yards from the line of scrimmage on passes caught beyond the line of scrimmage.
• On a sweep to my side, I need to pay attention to the perimeter blockers and watch for holding. If the defender isn’t trying to disengage, the flag stays tucked in my belt. If that defender starts moving away and a receiver reels him in with a handful of jersey, that play is coming back.