Whether for offensive formations, uniform styles, celebration dances or rules changes, it's just a matter of time before decisions affecting professional football trickle down through the college ranks and eventually reach the high school game.
Earlier this week NFL owners passed a player-safety rule barring a ball carrier from using the crown of his helmet to make forcible contact with a defender in the open field. In other words, ball carriers no longer will be allowed to lower their heads like battering rams to initiate contact in trying to run over defenders.
It's the latest safety change designed to prevent head injuries, an issue that continues to receive considerable attention amid hundreds of lawsuits filed by former players claiming that the NFL did not do enough to prevent concussions in years past.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was eager to get approved the competition committee's proposal to outlaw use of the crown of the helmet by ball carriers. The penalty will be 15 yards from the spot of the foul, and if the offensive and defensive players both lower their heads and use the crown of the helmet to make contact, each will be penalized.
Accorrding to Kirk Lewis, the co-state supervisor of the Southeast Tennessee officials association, it is likely just a matter of time before that rule is implemented at the high school level as well.
"I definitely think it will be added to the high school rules, and I would guess it would be in the next year or so," Lewis said. "The way the game is already going, toward making it safer for the kids, it won't take long before it becomes a rule at the high school level. We have a TSSAA rules discussion coming up in about a month or so, and I'm sure that will be a topic.
"It will be a hard call to determine if the helmet is dropped enough that it's being used as a weapon or in a way that's dangerous, but it's something that we're all looking for ways to make the game safer for everyone."
Some of the area's top returning rushers this fall -- including Ooltewah's Desmond Pittman, Calhoun's Alex Urbano, Marion County's Blake Zeman and Polk County's Zach Miller -- share a very similar physical style that helped them gain more than 1,500 yards each last season. With more power than speed, those runners have shown a tendency to lower their heads when they anticipate contact, looking to wear on opposing defenders.
"I take a lot of pride in being a physical guy," said the 6-foot-1, 225-pound Miller, who said he's never suffered a concussion. In a game against Sequoyah last year, he set an area record with 44 carries for 411 bruising yards.
"It'd be pretty tough to change my style," Miller continued. "My natural instinct is to lower my head and my shoulder and hopefully run over the tackler or at least keep going for a few more yards. If I've lowered my head a few times on them early in the game, you can tell they don't want to come up as much on me by the fourth quarter."
And while coaches stress safety first at the prep level, most know it will be difficult to break habits that ball carriers picked up much earlier in their formative years of learning the game.
"I know it's about safety, but football is an aggressive game," Polk County coach Derrick Davis said. "It's a tough sport and that's part of it. You try to run over somebody who's about to tackle you. You don't want to give them a target to hit or you'll get your ribs broke.
"We don't teach them to drop their facemask down and look at the ground, but it may affect us a little because our backs do drop their shoulder, and sometimes involuntarily their heads drop, too."
Likewise, Zeman became one of the area's leading rushers with a punishing style that helped Marion make the biggest turnaround in the state last season, winning eight more games than the season before. The 5-9, 210-pound sophomore ran for 135-plus yards seven times, including a school-record 337 in one game, and was never tackled for lost yardage.
"He got a lot of his yards after contact," Marion coach Mac McCurry said. "Blake is another one of those runners that gets better as the game goes because people get tired of coming up and taking the contact he dishes out. When you teach running backs how to get extra yards, you teach them to lower their shoulder, their center of gravity, to bend at the waist. But you want the head to remain up, looking ahead.
"My question is how to determine the difference between lowering your shoulder and dipping your head a little bit and when it's a penalty for completely dropping the head. It could be tough to tell the difference at our level.
"I don't think it's as much of a problem in high school as in the NFL," McCurry added. "Most coaches are teaching safety first because none of us want there to be a serious injury. I think the rule will trickle down and that will make sure all coaches start teaching their players to do it the right way."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...