College football is closer than ever to allowing widespread usage of helmet communication and sideline tablets, finally catching up to the technology available at other levels of the sport.
The NCAA Football Rules Committee meets at the end of February and could come out of that meeting with proposals to allow permissive use of both pieces of tech, meaning whoever wants to use them could use them. Based on the insight gathered by the committee so far, the experimental use of helmet and tablet tech during the 2023-24 season’s non-CFP bowl games was a rousing success.
“We’ve gotten nothing but terrific feedback,” said NCAA national coordinator of officials Steve Shaw.
The NFL has allowed helmet communication to the quarterbacks since 1994, adding the capability for one defensive player per team in 2008 and introducing sideline tablets in 2014. College football hasn’t joined in those steps for several reasons: cost, the logistics of standardizing the change for so many teams, hesitancy from some coaches and liability concerns by manufacturers.
But the Big Ten made a push for progress last summer, led by vice president of football administration A.J. Edds, when it proposed allowing league members to use helmet communication and video technology. Edds is also the co-chair of the NCAA Football Rules Committee.
“The Big Ten has historically led in innovation and technological opportunities going back to instant replay in the early 2000s,” Edds said. “This was the result of feedback from our head coaches, that this progresses and advances operations, and professionalizes what Big Ten football would look and feel like. It’s been a conversation in our coaches group for the last handful of years.”
The rules committee did not approve the request but instead came up with the bowl season experiment for the helmet communication. The Big Ten’s push had nothing to do with the Connor Stalions sign-stealing and scouting scandal at Michigan, which was still unknown at the time. But the revelation of that investigation ramped up a push from coaches around the country for more technology. Later in the fall, the committee approved the use of tablets in bowl games.
Conference football administrators decided that both teams would have to agree on technology being used in their game and what would be used. Six bowl games featured helmet tech and 12 used tablets, Shaw said. In most cases, a pair of teams used the same level of technology. Auburn did not use helmet communication in the Music City Bowl against Maryland but allowed the Terrapins to use it. Because of the quick turnaround to bowl games, teams only had a week or so to practice with it. DVSport (which handles film for most teams) ran the tablets, while CoachComm (which handles coach headsets for most teams) and GSC (which supplies the NFL) provided the helmet communication.
“We practiced with it four times going into the game, and it was probably one of our cleanest operations when it comes to the sideline and communication,” Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire said of the Red Raiders’ use of CoachComm.
With only a little time to practice with the tech and in the middle of a busy month, most teams passed on the opportunity. Some that did take it up leaned into it and found a difference.
“We’re a huddle team, so talking to the quarterback, we were able to put in more offense, more motions and shifts, make sure everyone was right,” said Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock, who worked as a Baltimore Ravens assistant prior to his hiring at NIU. “It really helped us out. We didn’t have any procedural penalties. We did a lot of offense and stayed clean, a lot of that due to helmet communication.”
For no-huddle teams, helmet communication doesn’t eliminate sideline signaling. Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones, whose Red Wolves played Northern Illinois in the Camellia Bowl, said they didn’t want to alter too much in a short span.
“We still signaled in because receivers gotta get them,” Jones said. “We wanted to keep as minimal change as possible for the flow of the game. We have a system in place of what we do, and with a limited amount of time, we didn’t want to disrupt that.”
Different teams employed different strategies. Texas Tech put the defense’s helmet devices on safeties and linebackers. West Virginia put them on linebackers but has used helmet communication technology for the past few spring practices, so the Mountaineers didn’t have to adjust to the tech.
There were also very few actual rules. The tablets allowed video, a departure from the NFL, where tablets are only used for still images. There was no helmet communication shut-off deadline like the NFL, which turns the helmets off when the play clock hits 15 seconds. As a result, coaches could talk to their players the entire time. They didn’t call out open receivers in the middle of plays, but they reminded quarterbacks about checks and shifts.
“We used it but didn’t over-communicate to the quarterback,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said. “Give them the play, maybe a reminder, but we didn’t get carried away. It wasn’t continuous dialogue by any means.”
In the weeks since bowl games, conference administrators and the rules committee have been gathering feedback. Thus far, it’s been all positive. Both Shaw and CoachComm said they’ve gotten no reports of any technological hiccups.
“It went as well as we could’ve hoped,” said CoachComm owner Peter Amos, who said his company is prepared to supply many more schools this spring if widespread use is approved.
One of the biggest hurdles with the tech has been the legal questions about how the technology would affect the helmets’ warranty: If someone sues over head injuries, who would be liable? The helmet manufacturers have historically maintained that putting a third-party device in a helmet would shift liability away from them and toward the schools, which was the case for the bowl games. That stance has typically scared people away. The NFL does its own testing with helmet companies and encodes its standards in the collective bargaining agreement with the players union.
But college officials are optimistic that the manufacturers will get on board if the change is introduced on a large scale at the college level. Helmets used in college football must meet the National Operating Committee on Standards on Athletic Equipment (NOCSAE) standard. Riddell, which makes the helmets for 87 percent of college players, said it has and will assist in the process of approving devices.
“Riddell’s assistance will include, among other things, a preliminary evaluation of a coach-to-player communication device sample to review the form factor and installation possibilities,” the company said in a statement to The Athletic. “If the device can be placed in a helmet without compromising protective performance or impeding the existing technologies embodied in the headgear, it will be up to the provider to then deliver additional units to Riddell. The provider will also be responsible for paying associated fees related to the additional testing necessary to readying and certifying the helmet for on-field use. … Riddell welcomes the opportunity to play a part in this exciting development within the game.”
The next step will be solidifying the rules, such as a shut-off time on the helmet devices, the number of devices allowed and the type of images permitted on tablets. Officials also want to make sure tablets can’t be connected to outside offices for remote coaching. Conference football administrators have discussed those topics in recent weeks in hopes of finding a standardization for the rules committee to propose, which would open the door for teams to begin using the tech.
“If we can leave that meeting with a solidified framework that would go to the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, we would like to do that,” Edds said. “But we do not want to rush this. We hope to send the message that this will be permissive, but we don’t want to inadvertently place rules around it that we wish we could undo after spring and the chance to experiment with 15 workouts.”
If it all gets approved, any team would be able to use it. As a permissive technology, it wouldn’t require both teams to have it for it to be used in a game, Shaw said. The rules committee actually approved the use of electronic and video devices in 2016, but the decision was rescinded one month later after commissioners said more time was needed to develop guidelines. This time around, especially after the Stalions fallout at Michigan, officials want something done.
It has been 30 years since the NFL first began using helmet communication. Many states allow sideline video technology at the high school football level. College football has long been stuck in the middle. That may be about to change for good.
“It happens every Sunday,” McGuire said. “Just do that.”
(Photo: Carly Mackler / Getty Images)