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Hawaii to test out intentional-grounding rule

Reaction positive to experimental rule that brings high school football in alignment with NFL, college

Maui High School’s Brex Delray throws a first-quarter pass during a Maui Interscholastic League game against Lahainaluna on Oct. 26 2019. This season, Hawaii will be one of two states that will be using a one-year experimental intentional-grounding rule at the high school level that mirrors the NFL and college. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER file photos

Hawaii is one of two states in the nation that is using a one-year experimental intentional-grounding rule at the high school level that mirrors the NFL and college football.

Hawaii and Oregon have been approved by the National Federation of State High School Associations for a one-year use of the rule that allows a quarterback to avoid penalty if he throws the ball past the line of scrimmage while outside of the tackle box — no receiver needs to be in the area of the pass.

Currently, the high school penalty for intentional grounding is loss of down and loss of yardage from the spot of the throw plus five more yards.

The rule was brought to Hawaii largely with the guidance of Matthew Sumstine, an NFL replay official who lives on Oahu. He was inducted into the Hawaii Sports Officials Hall of Fame in 2020.

The one-year experimental rule can be renewed two more times before it comes up in front the NFHS to approve or not nationwide.

Baldwin quarterback La‘a­kea Asuega-Stark releases a pass against King Kekau­like on Oct. 25, 2019.

“This is just in Hawaii and Oregon, we’re the test case for this,” Sumstine said. “The rationale is if it’s safety related, it’s always better to have a uniform code. The NFL has had this same rule in place as a way to protect the passers from unnecessary hits. The NCAA has the same rule in place, high school does not have the same rule in place.

“Oregon and Hawaii are on an up-to-three-year experiment to track the data on if it makes sense to do it.”

Sumstine is a former on-field official who became the first from Hawaii to serve as an NFL replay official four years ago.

Prior to that, he worked in the Western Athletic, Big 12 and Mountain West conferences as an on-field and replay official. He is the Hawaii High School Athletic Association coordinator of officials.

He said the thought process for the experimental rule at the prep level is simple — keep young quarterbacks safe and line up the rule from the high school to professional levels.

“The rationale is if the quarterback gets out of the pocket — which we’re defining as the east-west barrier of the free blocking zone at the snap which is 4 yards to the left, 4 yards to the right,” Sumstine said. “If the passer gets outside of that area and they are able to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage the exception is that there doesn’t have to be a receiver in the area.

“If he’s not outside of the 4 yards either side of the ball, and he throws the ball to an area not occupied by a receiver or throws the ball away out of bounds, then it would still be potentially intentional grounding, still a foul.”

Reaction to the rule was positive in the Maui Interscholastic League, which is scheduled to resume practice on Monday after a six-week pause. The halt in MIL practice came on Aug. 4 when the state Department of Education decreed that all players, coaches and volunteers must be vaccinated for COVID-19 or have an approved medical or religious exemption to participate.

“I think that’s a great idea,” veteran Baldwin High School head coach Pohai Lee said of the new rule. “I’m kind of shocked that Oregon and Hawaii are being guinea pigs for this experiment, but I’m all for that. It’s about protecting the quarterback when you can and I think it’s a good rule.

“I’ve seen it enough in games and in the NFL, so yeah, definitely, I like it.”

Lee added that lining up as many rules to be the same at all levels of play is a good idea.

“When it’s as consistent as it can be, it’s even better,” Lee said.

Lionel Montalvo, the vice president of the Maui Football Officials Association and head referee in the MIL, is also in favor of the rule.

“Yes, of course, anything to do with the safety of the players,” Montalvo said. “I think we’re in favor of it because people that see the game on TV as far as the NFL and college, they assume that high school has the same rules. And so we get that all the time where people are yelling out, ‘He’s out of the tackle box.’

“This will be consistent with following the higher levels of football, so I think that it’s a good rule change. I’m just surprised that it took so long.”

Montalvo added that the rule is more fair when applied this way. It comes on the heels of another recent rule change for quarterbacks that Montalvo also supports.

“I think it is because even like the coaches and the players, they will understand the rule and the legality and the safety of it,” Montalvo said. “They just recently changed the rule … for the quarterback in order to kill the clock, the quarterback had to have a direct hand-to-hand snap, they couldn’t be in the shotgun formation.

“And that was a hard one to call sometimes because you know they’re rushing, they’re getting up, they’re trying to kill the clock and teams normally line up in a shotgun formation and then quarterback throws the ball down at his feet. It is tough to call that, but it is (now) one of the federation rules. That rule change was good now that they do allow it as long as it’s directly to the ground. That’s just a recent rule change, also.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

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