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Being college football replay official offers unique view of game

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ATHENS, Ga. – When they suggested becoming familiar with the jog shuttle – yeah, of course I was concerned. It sounded like an agility drill, the kind of thing the sadistic cross-fit guy enjoys putting you through.

Turns out, it’s a very advanced digital controller, the instrument used by a college football replay official to review plays from every conceivable angle. There was no running or jumping involved. But a stint last Saturday as a replay official proved to be a strenuous workout, anyway.

Count the players. Watch the play. Click the jog shuttle to watch it again. Find a better angle. Watch it again. Slow it down. Reverse. Freeze it there – oh, the next play is already starting?

Quick, let’s do it all again.

As Georgia’s spring game unfolded on the field below, my focus wasn’t on Jake Fromm’s progress at quarterback or Deandre Baker’s replacement at cornerback, but on analyzing the details of each play. And then it was over – and I didn’t even get to bring the action to a screeching halt, to make everyone wait while I pored over a controversial play, and render a decision that prompted referee Steve Shaw to announce:

“Upon further review …”

Sigh – unless you’re Shaw.

“I know in your shot, you wanted to be able to stop the game, but there is no additional pay for the replay official,” said Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator of officials. “They don’t get paid by stops. So from our perspective, it was a really good day.”

After a really hard day viewing football through a unique lens, I’ve got a better perspective.

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Shaw stepped back into the referee’s shoes Saturday to manage a crew of media members trying out on-field officiating positions. A year ago, I’d been down there with them as the back judge at South Carolina’s spring game. The experience was at once terrifying and exhilarating and produced the desired outcome, at least from the SEC’s perspective. Where I’d had respect for officials’ integrity and competence, I came away with even more.

By contrast, being the replay official was not quite as nerve-wracking. But it was consuming – that jog shuttle got a workout – and it quickly became clear just how much responsibility comes with the role.

An evolving science

The use of replay in college football has evolved greatly from when it was introduced in the mid-2000s. Consider Oklahoma vs. Oregon in 2006, when Pac-12 officials blew a late onside kick in a couple of ways. They did not see an Oregon player touched the football before it had traveled 10 yards. And they did not see an Oklahoma player recover the ball after it skittered from beneath a pile of players.

And for several reasons, replay official Gordon Riese was unable to correct either mistake. Awarded the football, Oregon went on to score and win.

A big issue back then was the equipment, which routinely used smaller screens and lesser technology than fans, even then, had at home. Riese’s review was conducted on a 16-inch screen, without HD and with very few replay angles. He could not rewind or fast-forward. It was not ideal.

In an interview later, Riese told me he was unable to determine whether an Oregon player had touched the ball early. And although he said he’d seen Oklahoma’s Allen Patrick recover the football, that was not reviewable; at the time, Riese was not allowed to tell the referee that Oklahoma had recovered the ball.

By contrast, the replay booth at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium is outfitted with state-of-the-art, 28-inch monitors and technology by DVSport. And although each conference has slight variations in protocols and sometimes in technical systems, what’s reviewable has expanded exponentially since those early days, too. Replay now reviews:

  • Scoring plays.
  • Pass plays, including whether a pass is caught or incomplete, thrown forward or backward, deflected, thrown after the passer has passed the line of scrimmage. 
  • Fumbles and other loose ball plays.
  • Forward progress and spot of the football.
  • Whether a player is in or out of bounds.
  • Targeting.
  • The number of players on the field.
  • Clock adjustment (in certain situations).

There’s much more, with plenty of detailed permutations in each category. It takes “indisputable video evidence” to either confirm or overturn a call; in the absence of that, a call on the field stands. In the official NCAA football rulebook, instant replay is covered in a little more than six pages. But there’s also a 92-page instant replay review casebook with 188 plays.

It’s why the SEC’s nine replay officials are all retired on-field officials with intimate knowledge of the rules and vast experience in just about every possible scenario that could arise. (The SEC is exploring avenues that might allow officials to move to the replay booth in mid-career, but it’s likely officiating experience will always be a requirement.) They’re considered part of the officiating crew, assigned by the conference office and participating in pregame and postgame sessions with their on-field counterparts.

And there’s a constant question as to whether even more instances should be reviewed. Beginning this season, the NFL will allow offensive and defensive pass interference to be determined by replay. Shaw, who also serves as the secretary-rules editor of the NCAA’s football rules committee, hopes college football doesn’t head too far down the same path.

“Good or bad, (what’s reviewable) continues to expand every year,” Shaw said. “Some of the expansion is very logical. … But as we continue to walk down the road – and this is a question, not an answer – is it good for the game to make more and more type situations reviewable? I think the NFL is crossing over into another area, and that’s judgment calls being reviewable. Is that good for the game? I don’t know. We’ll have to see how it works out.

“If the goal ultimately becomes replay should correct every issue on the field, I think that would not be good for our game.”

A unique perspective

The replay official is tasked with watching each play as it unfolds on the field below, and then reviewing it – usually from at least a couple of angles. The action can be unspooled forward or backward at varying speeds, controlled by two wheels on the jog shuttle. Angles can be switched at any point in the action; there’s a possibility of viewing up to six different angles on each play, as well as the different replays shown on the TV broadcast. If wanted, the screen splits into squares, showing the play from four different views, all at the exact same point in the action.

There’s more, but it gets complicated in a hurry – which sort of describes the entire experience.

The replay official is joined by a communicator, also assigned by the league – on Saturday, it was Cole Cunningham, the SEC’s director of video operations – who assists in several ways, including crucial communications with on-field officials when the replay official halts play to initiate a review. The system is operated by a technician – in Athens, it was Tim Smith – who is hired by the home school and has no part in the decision-making process.

During the season, the onsite replay review is augmented by input from the SEC’s collaborative replay center in Birmingham, Alabama. But on Saturday for a spring game, we were on our own. But veteran official Larry Rose, who serves as an evaluator of the league’s officiating crews, lent an invaluable extra set of trained eyes.

“You’ll get into a rhythm,” Cunningham promised beforehand, and he was right. Even though navigating the jog shuttle was still daunting – it was a good thing I kept a cheat sheet listing which buttons produced which shots – it was fairly simple to use. Between most plays, there was plenty of time to view the previous play from several angles.

If I wasn’t efficient Saturday, I wasn’t completely lost, either. But in all the attention obsessing over each play, I missed what actually happened in the scrimmage.

Afterward, Fromm told reporters he was disappointed in his performance. I was vaguely aware that a pick-six on the third play was thrown by Fromm, but only because he was the starting quarterback. Don’t ask about anything else that happened in the bigger picture – my focus was on all of those smaller pictures happening on every play.

“Hit on the quarterback,” Cunningham would say, and among the immediate duties was to check that contact.

Was that contact with the crown of the helmet? Were there any indicators of targeting? Did the ball carrier go out of bounds or get safely into the end zone? And so on. The constant manual and mental dexterity required was a challenge. The experience was oddly exhausting.

And sadly, one goal remained unfulfilled. When I’d told Georgia coach Kirby Smart a day before the game my goal was to create the longest spring game in the history of spring games, he did not seem amused. But Smart agreed to allow one replay review during the exhibition, which was set for a two-hour TV window on the SEC Network.

But there was never a reason to push the button that buzzed the pagers on the officials’ belts. If it was disappointing – I wanted to buzz them – in the bigger picture, it was a good thing.

“What we want is for you to get a different impression about how hard it is to do this,” Rose said afterward. “Not just anybody can walk in and do it.”

He’s right. I walked out of the replay booth with a much clearer view of replay.

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