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Football referee mechanics explained

A look inside the the most thankless job in American sport



Not very many people like football officials. People do like yelling at them though - coaches, fans, players, people on the other side of a TV screen.

Officials are booed when they enter the stadium.

It's hard to think of another job where hundreds of thousands of people expect nothing but sheer incompetence from you. Maybe only politicians share that honor.

Yet, here are the zebras, college football's gameday police, judge and jury, doing their best at a job everyone hates them for doing. In a best case scenario, they go through a game unnoticed, anonymous.

Berating a ref is a socially acceptable behavior learned at an early age -- parents yell at officials in youth sports, dads cuss at the TV, entire stadiums transform into Shakespearian groundlings at the first sight of unfavorable laundry.

Let's take a close look at exactly what each official is responsible for, if only to improve our heckling.

College football uses a seven man officiating crew. Their assignment is listed on the back of their uniform.


  • "R" - Referee. He'll be wearing a white hat and is the one who communicates penalties. The ref sets up around five yards behind the quarterback and shaded to his throwing side. After the snap, he is primarily responsible for the interior line to that side. A flag thrown by the ref is most likely holding, but some others might include false start, illegal motion, too many men, roughing the passer, roughing the kicker, hands to the face, illegal chop block, ineligible man downfield and delay of game.
  • "L" - Linesman. He'll be to the same side of the field as the ref, on the line of scrimmage. He's responsible for counting whether the offense satisfies the 7 men on the line of scrimmage requirement. If the widest receiver is off the ball, the linesman will hold an extended arm pointing toward the backfield. During the snap, the linesman watches the line of scrimmage, looking down the neutral zone. After the snap, he keys the third priority receiver. In the even set example above, this becomes the running back; in trips, it would be the inside receiver. Flags thrown by the linesman are likely false start, illegal motion, lined up in the neutral zone, encroachment, pass interference and defensive holding.
  • "LJ" - Line Judge. He is opposite the linesman on the line of scrimmage. He will also signal whether the widest receiver is on the line, but is not responsible for counting all the men on the line. He has the same post-snap responsibilities as the linesman, but to his side of the ball.
  • "FJ" - Field Judge. On the same side of the field as the linesman, around 15 yards downfield and near the sideline. He, along with the side judge, is responsible for counting defensive players. After the snap, the FJ keys on the number one priority receiver, or the outside receiver to his side. He must never allow a player in between himself and the sideline. He calls the play from the outside in. Flags thrown by a FJ and SJ are usually for defensive holding, pass interference, personal foul (facemask, horse-collar, late hit, defenseless receiver), illegal defensive substitution and too many men.
  • "SJ" - Side Judge. Opposite the FJ with the same responsibilities.
  • "BJ" - Back Judge. He'll line up close to 20 yards downfield and will shade the strong side, or side with the most eligible receivers. He has the second priority receiver on the strong side. In the case above, the strong side defaults to the side of the linesman and he has the inside receiver. In trips, he would have the middle receiver. The BJ officiates from the inside out. He will also signal when 20 seconds have expired on the play clock. The BJ will call primarily call the same list of infractions as the LJ and FJ.
  • "U" - Umpire. He sets up wherever he doesn't inhibit the defense, close to 5 yards downfield on the opposite side of the ref (or head up over the center). He is responsible for the backside half of the interior line and counting total offensive players. The umpire will mostly call false starts and holding. He, the linesman and line judge will coordinate spotting the ball. L and LJ mark the LOS with an extended foot and the umpire will look to the L for the spot, or establish a spot and wait for the L and LJ to mark it.

The officials can switch responsibilities during the play, if they communicate. Most importantly, they try to avoid keying the same offensive player.

Next time out, we'll take a look at the hand signals these guys use.