College football is closer than ever to enabling widespread use of helmet communications and fieldside tablets, finally catching up with the technology available at other levels of the sport.
The NCAA Football Rules Committee meets in late February and could make proposals at that meeting that would allow the liberal use of both technologies, meaning anyone who wants to use them can use them. Based on the evidence gathered by the Committee to date, the experimental use of helmet and tablet technology during the non-CFP bowl games of the 2023-24 season was a resounding success.
“We’ve had nothing but great feedback,” said Steve Shaw, national coordinator of NCAA officials.
The NFL has allowed quarterbacks helmet communication since 1994, added the option for one defensive player per team in 2008 and introduced sideline tablets in 2014. College football has not joined these steps for several reasons: cost, logistics of standardizing changes for so many teams, hesitancy of some coaches and liability concerns on the part of manufacturers.
But the Big Ten pushed for progress last summer under the leadership of AJ Edds, vice president of football administration, when it proposed allowing league members to use helmet communications and video technology. Edds is also co-chair of the NCAA Football Rules Committee.
“The Big Ten has historically been a leader in innovation and technological capabilities, dating back to the immediate repeat in the early 2000s,” Edds said. “This was a result of feedback from our head coaches that this will elevate and advance operations and professionalize the look and feel of Big Ten football. It’s been a conversation in our coaching group for the last few years.”
The Rules Committee did not approve the request, but instead developed the Bowl Season Helmet Communication Experiment. The Big Ten’s move had nothing to do with the then-unknown Connor Stalions sign-stealing and spying scandal in Michigan. But the revelation of that research sparked a push for more technology among coaches across the country. Later that fall, the committee approved the use of tablets at bowl games.
The conference’s football administrators decided that both teams would have to agree on the technology used in their game and how it would be used. Six bowl games included helmet technology and 12 used tablets, Shaw said. In most cases, two 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 of bowl games, teams only had about a week to practice. DVSport (which handles film production for most teams) operated the tablets, while CoachComm (which manages coaching headsets for most teams) and GSC (which supplies the NFL) provided helmet communications.
“We practiced with it four times before the game started and it was probably one of our cleanest uses as far as sideline and communication goes,” Texas Tech head coach Joey McGuire said of the Red Raiders’ use of CoachComm.
With little time to practice with the technique and in the middle of a busy month, most teams passed up the opportunity. Some who have picked it up have engaged with it and noticed a difference.
“We’re a huddle team, so by talking to the quarterback we were able to initiate more offense, more moves and shifts and make sure everyone was right,” said Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock, who worked as an assistant with the Baltimore Ravens before his hiring at NIU. “It really helped us. We had no procedural penalties. We made a lot of attacks and stayed clean, which is largely due to the communication with the helmet.”
For teams where things are not so tight, helmet communication does not eliminate the need for signaling on the sideline. Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones, whose Red Wolves played Northern Illinois in the Camellia Bowl, said they didn’t want to change too much in a short period of time.
“We reached out anyway because the recipients have to get them,” Jones said. “We wanted to keep the flow of the game as low as possible. 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 used different strategies. Texas Tech has installed the defense’s helmet devices on safeties and linebackers. West Virginia put them at linebacker but used helmet communication technology in recent spring practices, so the Mountaineers didn’t have to get used to the technology.
There were also very few actual rules. The tablets enabled video, a departure from the NFL, where tablets are only used for still images. There was no deadline for turning off helmet communications like the NFL, which turns off helmets when the game clock reaches 15 seconds. This allowed coaches to talk to their players the entire time. They didn’t call open receivers in the middle of the game, but they reminded the quarterbacks about checks and shifts.
“We took advantage of it but didn’t communicate too much with the quarterback,” West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said. “Give them the piece, maybe a memory, but we didn’t get carried away. It was by no means an ongoing dialogue.”
In the weeks since the bowl games, conference administrators and the rules committee have been gathering feedback. So far everything has been positive. Both Shaw and CoachComm said they had not received any reports of technical problems.
“It went as well as we could have hoped,” said CoachComm owner Peter Amos, who said his company is poised to serve many more schools this spring if widespread use is approved.
One of the biggest hurdles with the technology was the legal questions about how the technology would affect the helmets’ warranties: If someone sues for overhead injuries, who is liable? Helmet manufacturers have claimed in the past that incorporating a third-party device into a helmet would shift liability from them to schools, which was the case at bowl games. This attitude usually turned people off. The NFL conducts its own tests with helmet manufacturers and anchors its standards in the collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union.
However, college officials are optimistic that manufacturers will get on board if the change is rolled out widely 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 supported and will support the device approval process.
“Riddell’s assistance includes, among other things, a preliminary evaluation of a sample of a coach-player communication device to verify the form factor and installation options,” the company said in a statement to The athlete. “If the device can be incorporated into a helmet without compromising the protective performance or interfering with the technologies present in the headgear, it is the responsibility of the provider to then supply additional units to Riddell.” The provider is also responsible for payment of the associated Fees associated with the additional testing required to prepare and certify the helmet for on-field use. … Riddell welcomes the opportunity to be part of this exciting evolution of the game.”
In the next step, the rules will be specified, such as a switch-off time for the helmet devices, the number of devices allowed and the type of images allowed on tablets. Officials also want to ensure that tablets cannot be connected to outside offices for remote learning. The conference’s football administrators have been discussing these issues in recent weeks, hoping to find standardization for the rules committee that would allow teams to begin using the technology.
“If we can leave this meeting with a solidified framework that will be passed on to the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, we would be happy to do that,” Edds said. “But we don’t want to rush into this. We hope to send the message that this will be permissive, but we don’t want to inadvertently set rules that we wish we could undo after spring and the opportunity to experiment with 15 workouts.”
If everything is approved, any team could use it. Because it’s a permissive technology, both teams wouldn’t have to have it to use it in a game, Shaw said. The Regulatory Committee actually approved the use of electronic devices and video devices in 2016, but the decision was overturned a month later after commissioners said more time was needed to develop guidelines. This time, especially after the Stallions fallout in Michigan, officials want to do something.
It’s been 30 years since the NFL first used helmet communications. Many states allow secondary video technology at the high school football level. College football has been stuck in the middle for a long time. That could soon change for good.
“This happens every Sunday,” McGuire said. “Just do that.”
(Photo: Carly Mackler/Getty Images)