The goal of any trick play is to make the defense think the ball is going one place, then put the ball in a different place, whether that’s as simple as a play-action pass, as absurd as a fumblerooski, or as daring as the
Philly Pitt Special.
Some innovations have gone beyond even that, hiding not just the ball, but also entire humans. These tricks combine not wanting to be found with not wanting to be bothered if you are.
One popularized in the 2010s is the ultimate introvert’s gambit, adding zest to the most boring play in football: the kickoff.
Meet the hidden kick returner. His job is to be a chameleon.
In 2012, the Eagles had Riley Cooper lie in the middle of a letter in the end zone while the Saints kicked off. Cooper caught a cross-field pass and took off:
College teams were trying it by 2014, when TCU had B.J. Catalon, wearing black and purple, lie down in their purple end zone. He dropped to his stomach as the ball was meeting the kicker’s foot (this is a key point, as you’ll see). The kick went to the other side, and so did Oklahoma’s coverage. Catalon stood up, caught a long lateral, and took off:
In 2016, Kansas tried it with an all-blue player in a blue end zone. It worked — though, this being Kansas, not all that much:
In 2018, TCU went back to it against Ohio State, this time with minimal camouflage, but again with the hidden guy breaking free:
If you wanted to try this trick, then until mid-2018, the only things to avoid were:
- Screwing up what should be a well-honed throw (whether by missing or by accidentally throwing forward, as happened in a couple of these examples)
- Being the Jets (and trying this from the very back of the end zone, meaning no room to throw)
The short throw to an open receiver shouldn’t be hard.
If that receiver is discovered? Just don’t throw it.
And for years, there was nothing about a well-executed version for officials to penalize, meaning a relatively low-risk trick play all around.
This fits into a lineage of hide-and-seek plays that might seem like they should be illegal, despite almost no possible way to legislate against them.
Football is always hackable. Its long list of rules has set boundaries within which to create, an endless back-and-forth between coaches and the rulebook. (For one prominent example, college rules say offensive linemen can go three yards downfield before a pass. Offensive coaches responded by developing RPOs.)
One area the rulebooks regulate heavily is formations. You need seven men on the line of scrimmage. Of those seven, only the guys on the ends can catch a pass.
But there is nothing in the rulebook that says one of those guys can’t be way out on the edge. So in 2004, the best coach of all time brought back an old trick and had an uncovered Troy Brown hide along the sideline to catch a fake-field goal TD:
Adam Vinatieri, who threw that touchdown, pointed out one of the most appealing things about the play: virtually no risk, just like the hidden-man kick return hack.
“If it works out right, it works out right,” Vinatieri said. “I kind of glance over there and make sure he’s not covered.”
If the secret operative is covered, all you have to do is not throw it to him. Just kick the ball.
You’re playing with house money. The payoff can be big, like for Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech against Clemson in 2009:
A lot of people thought Georgia Tech violated the NCAA rule that says:
No simulated replacements or substitutions may be used to confuse opponents. No tactic associated with substitutes or the substitution process may be used to confuse opponents.
But leaning on a rule that requires determination of intent creates its own problems. The line between faking a substitution and just standing very wide is, well, thin. (The broadcast doesn’t show exactly what happened.)
Afterward, the ACC announced how disappointed it was in the Jackets, but never publicly said they broke any actual rules.
There are other ways to hide. A bunch of teams have hidden a short guy behind the linemen and given him the ball while everybody else went the other way:
Elsewhere, teams have opted not to hide ball-carriers, but to have them pretend they’re not even there. North Texas had a punt returner stand still to fake a fair catch during a meticulously planned TD:
Now THAT'S a perfectly executed trick play #SCtop10 pic.twitter.com/YR3pKyyDaH— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 15, 2018
That made people mad, too. Plenty of fans and media called for it to be banned, and one false report said the NCAA would. No ban came down, to the chagrin of people who thought the returner should’ve been whistled for “giving himself up,” something that doesn’t technically apply. (That one also differs from the hidden-man kick return by carrying actual risk, because the other team could legally obliterate the punt returner who hasn’t signaled for a fair catch.)
The hidden-man kick return stands out from most of its genre in one way: having to navigate college football’s overlapping officiating jurisdictions.
TCU’s 2014 effort against Oklahoma came back because of holding, which could happen on any regular kick return. Both the Eagles’ 2012 attempt and TCU’s 2018 encore against Ohio State came back because the laterals were illegal forward passes.
And TCU’s 2018 attempt proved to have lasting costs for college trick play connoisseurs.
Nothing in the NCAA’s rulebook prohibits lying down to fool a kick coverage team. There are no rules about visibility, deception, or unfair acts that seem to apply. I have looked a bunch of times.
But the NCAA, in addition to having rules, has official interpretations of those rules. Some are in the rulebook. Some are not. After TCU’s try against Ohio State, an NCAA officiating head honcho issued a rules interpretation to refs across the country. It laid out this scenario:
Both teams are in position for a [kickoff]. The Receiving team has 2 deep [kick returners], with B21 at the goal line on the right side of the field and B44 lying motionless face down in the end zone on the left side of the field. The Referee notices B44 just before or after the Ready for Play signal.
RULING: The Referee will declare an injury timeout before the ball becomes alive. B44 must leave the game and remain out of the game for at least one down.
That executive fiat made it so nobody could drop to the ground before a kickoff. If a player did, the ref was supposed to treat it like any potential injury. That is fair enough. It’s smart to assume players on the ground between plays are injured and to stop the action so they can receive care.
A few weeks after that royal decree, Texas went ahead with nine seconds left in the Red River Whatever. Oklahoma’s Hollywood Brown snuck into the end zone and lied down before the kickoff. So under this new interpretation, the ref stopped play. Oklahoma was forced to try a normal kickoff return, which yielded nothing special.
Brown couldn’t even be on the field for it, because he’d been ruled an “injured” player for lying down. You could see the disappointment on his face as officials removed him:
Lincoln Riley is as smart a tactical coach as has ever lived, and even his staff apparently didn’t know the new rule. (Perhaps that’s because it wasn’t an actual rule.)
The lack of real rules around hidden-man returns has created its own problems. Officiating crews don’t always know how to handle these plays.
The NCAA saying all potentially injured players should be removed makes sense. But in other areas, different conference officials have come up with their own interpretations that have far less grounding in the rulebook, such as team after team getting flagged for throwing Horns Down despite there being no rule against it.
And if we’re talking about college football refs just making stuff up, then it’s time to talk about the Pac-12.
That takes us to 2019, when Washington tried the hidden-man runback against Oregon in a crucial rivalry game. The Huskies even had Chico McClatcher lie down after Oregon’s kick went airborne, as the NCAA’s 2018 interpretation allowed for:
The officiating crew penalized McClatcher for unsportsmanlike conduct. The reason is unclear. Huskies coach Chris Petersen said he got “about four different explanations,” paraphrasing them as:
- “Can’t do that.” (Do what?)
- “Can’t fall down before he kicked it.” (McClatcher didn’t.)
- “Can’t lay down because it’s the same-colored jersey as the end zone.” (The rulebook says a lot about what constitutes a legal uniform, but not what you can do once you’re wearing said legal uniform.)
A strong return got wiped out, costing Washington about 23 yards in a game with a one-score final result, and seemingly nobody knows why.
But in a Washington State-Oregon State game the year before — weeks after that new rules interpretation came out — the Beavers ran the same play, and the Pac-12’s refs allowed it.
How's this for a special teams wrinkle?#GoBeavs pic.twitter.com/LLcCP871Io— Oregon State Football (@BeaverFootball) October 7, 2018
If all of this feels random, it should.
The hidden-man return is a deeply college football play, another example of both creators and legislators making it up as they go along.
When I say teams have always hacked the rules in search of places to hide footballs and people, I mean always. Pop Warner was cooking up tons of tricks in the early 1900s, including this:
Warner had [local tailor Mose] Blumenthal sew elastic bands into the waists of two or three players’ jerseys. [...]
Warner wasn’t sure the play was entirely legal. [...] ‘Neither the Indian boys nor myself considered the hidden ball play to be strictly legitimate,’ he said later. [...]
Set to receive the ball to start the second half, Warner instructs his team to run ‘hiddenball.’ As the ball descended into the arms of quarterback Jimmie Johnson, the other players huddle around him, facing outward. Hidden from view, Johnson slipped the ball up the back of Dillon’s jersey as starting end Albert Exendine pulled out [guard Charles] Dillon’s elastic waist.
The huddle split apart, and each player feigned carrying the ball. The Harvard Eleven had no idea which player possessed the ball. By the time they realized what had happened, Dillon was tumbling across the goal line.
Rulebook overseer Walter Camp appreciated Warner’s cleverness, but agreed it wasn’t “strictly legitimate,” and that was the end of that trick.
A century later, the NCAA essentially announced teams could only do the hidden-man return in a certain way. Then Pac-12 refs didn’t like when the trick was done correctly, so they decided something different from the NCAA.
Teams could try to navigate the bureaucracy by informing the refs before a given play that trickeration is incoming. Or the NCAA could clarify actual rules around what returners can and can’t do, rather than hoping every ref in every conference memorizes a 2018 email.
But by the time officials all agree on how you can and cannot hide a kick returner, coaches will have discovered a whole new place to hide.