ATLANTA — Near the end of his stay Thursday at SEC Media Days, second-year Tennessee coach Josh Heupel was asked about a couple of proposed rule changes related to officiating. He didn’t have a strong opinion about one of them in particular, but he responded by offering one suggestion that might speed up games in the future.
“I’d start with fake cramps and try to rule that out of the game,” Heupel said Thursday afternoon.
It’s a topic that has been mentioned frequently in press conferences and other media interviews since the Vols played their first game under Heupel almost a year ago. Fans booed during multiple Tennessee games at Neyland Stadium last season, reacting to what they viewed as players faking injuries in hopes of preventing the Vols from rushing to the line of scrimmage and snapping the ball before the was ready.
When asked about it throughout last season, Heupel didn’t offer an opinion on whether he believes a rule change is needed to address the number of injury timeouts needed in some games. But after the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl, he said the officials who called Tennessee’s 48-45 overtime loss to Purdue weighed in on the issue.
Heupel was asked at the time whether he believed there should be a mandatory cooling-off period for players who require injury timeouts before they’re allowed to return to the game. He answered by explaining what at least one member of the officiating crew said to him at some point during the game.
“You know, what’s crazy is the officials wanted that tonight,” Heupel said on Dec. 30, referring to a possible rule change. “I thought that was pretty comical that they came up and said that to me. They think there needs to be a rule change.”
He hasn’t hidden his feelings on the issue in recent months. Fans asked him about it this spring at multiple Big Orange Caravan stops, and Heupel made at least a couple of light-hearted comments in response.
“Someday the integrity of the game’s going to get cleaned up,” he said in April during the Vols’ Big Orange Caravan stop in Atlanta. “Player safety is a tough thing to balance, right? But we’re going to make sure that, at the opposing team hotel, we send plenty of Gatorade and pickle juice and make sure that they’re fully hydrated and ready to play for 60 minutes.”
As for how college officials can prevent — or at least discourage — players from using “fake cramps” to slow down fast-paced offenses like Tennessee’s, Heupel said Thursday that there are “a lot of different options to create that.”
“What are they?” he added. “Well, I mean, I think if you’re injured during the course of a drive, player safety would say, ‘Man, we need to make sure that we take some time and truly evaluate this guy and probably keep him off the field for that drive.”’”
The NCAA announced in March that it would not add rules for the 2022 season that would give game officials the ability to penalize teams that it deems to be faking injuries during games. Although will be allowed to report alleged false programs, the NCAA has yet to mention any specific penalty or sanction that could be imposed in those situations.
“It is very difficult to legislate ethics, particularly when an injury timeout is being used to gain an advantage,” Stanford coach David Shaw, the current NCAA football rules committee chair, said in a statement at the time. “The small number of teams that seem to use these tactics should be addressed directly.”