General Football Terms

Some common terms either heard or observed during a football game:


This is the area of the football field behind the Offensive Line where a maximum of four (4) offensive players can stand on any given play.  It is in the opposite direction that the ball is moving in.


Toward or in the defensive team’s end of the playing field.  From the offense’s point of view it is past the Line of Scrimmage and at or toward the goal line of the defensive team.

Fair catch:

This happens when the player who is catching the kick off or punt signals to the referee that he is not going to run with the ball once he catches it, but rather accepts field position where he is.  The defensive players are not allowed to tackle him at this point, but they still cover the play in the event he drops the ball because then the ball becomes “live” again.

Field goal:

This is worth three points.  During a field goal attempt the ball is snapped from where it was last spotted and the kicker stands straight back from it.  In order to determine how long a field goal attempt is you need to take into account the distance from the beginning of the end zone to the goal posts (10 yards) as well as how far the kicker stands from where the ball is snapped (7 yards).  This is an additional 17 yards in total.  Therefore, if the ball is on an opponent’s 30-yard line, then the field goal will be a 47-yard attempt.  Especially in college, an offense wants to position the ball so that the field goal kicker has less than about 40 yards for the attempt, which means they really aim to be within the opponent’s 23 yards line.  Field goals are attempted on 4th down because they have a higher likelihood of putting points on the board than going for a touchdown.

Forward pass:

This is when the football is thrown by a football player (typically the quarterback) to one of the players on his team (typically the wide receiver or tight end, but can also be to the running back and if specifically declared eligible before the play is run, can also include the offensive linemen and the quarterback).  Only one forward pass can be thrown by the football team during a given play and it must be thrown from behind the line of scrimmage (where the ball begins).

Goal post:

The structure in the end zone that the kicker must kick the football through to score an extra point or a field goal.

Hash Marks (or Inbound Lines)

In college these are the marks on either side of that are 20 yards from the sidelines (please note that this differs significantly from the NFL).  The width of the field is a total of 53 yards and therefore the left and right hash marks are separated by 13 yards.  The play will always begin on or within the hash marks, which run the width of the field.  If the ball ends up within the hash marks after a play, the ball will be spotted at that exact position.  However, if the ball ends up outside the hash marks, it will be moved directly left or right so that it is placed on the closest hash mark after the play.

“S” is the Sideline and “H” is the Hashmark

S -60 ft- H -40 ft H -60ft- S
———— | ——– | ————


A pass that is thrown backward by the team with the ball (meaning in the opposite direction that they are attempting to move).  While players can attempt only one forward pass during a given play, they can lateral a pass as many times as they would like.  A play with multiple lateral passes is most often seen on the last play of the game when a team has a lot of ground to cover and needs to score a touchdown to tie or win the game. The most famous example of this is from the Cal-Stanford “Band” game.

Line of scrimmage:

Each team has its own line of scrimmage when the ball is ready for play, which is the yard line and it’s vertical plane that passes through the point of the ball nearest its side of the field and extends to the sidelines.

Neutral zone:

The space between the two lines of scrimmage (on offense and defense) extended to the sidelines.  It is the length of the ball.  Only the player snapping the ball can be in this area once he puts his hands on the ball or simulates such.  If an offensive player enters the neutral zone after this point, it is encroachment.  If a defensive player enters the neutral zone after this point, it is offside. There are penalties for both infractions.


This is prescribed for a rule infraction.  If there is a penalty for the rule infraction it is called a foul.  If there is no penalty for the rule infraction, it is simply a violation.  A violation cannot offset a foul.  However, fouls can offset each other.

Personal Foul:

This type of foul typically carries a 15 yard penalty plus an automatic first down if committed by the defense.  It includes such penalties such as Blocking Below the Waist and Chop Block.


This takes place on 4th down, which is the last down of possession before the ball goes to the other team.  Rather than call a play where they run or pass the ball, the team on offense has the opportunity to kick the ball to the other side.  If a team is close to their own end zone, they will likely opt for this play so that they move the ball in the opposite direction.  The risk is when the other team has a good punt returner because he can negate the benefit of kicking the ball and at worst can score a touchdown on the punt return. But if executed correctly, this puts the punting team in a much better position than if they were to lose the ball after 4 downs and just give the other team the ball at the spot on the field where they had it.  You can distinguish this type of kick from a kickoff because the ball is snapped to the kicker who holds the ball in his hands and drops it to kick, rather than kicking it from the ground, where it sits on a tee.


The designation given to a college player who did not play in any games during a particular year due to the Head Coach’s decision or injury (sometimes in the case of injury the NCAA will grant a medical redshirt to a player who started the season but did not play in very many games); The redshirted player is permitted to practice with the team and this doesn’t count against his four years of eligibility.  Most often freshman are redshirted so that in their first year of playing, which is their sophomore year of college, they are called “redshirt freshmen” as opposed to “true freshman”.

Red Zone:

This is a term used to describe the area between one’s opponent’s 20-yard line and its goal line.  The chance of scoring is increased greatly once a team reaches the Red Zone because even if they don’t make it into the End Zone, at that point the field goal attempt would be 37 yards (20 +17) or less and it is expected that the kicker will be able to make it successfully.


This occurs when the defense is able to tackle the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage during a passing play.  If the play is designed as a running play it is not a Sack, but rather a Stuff.  A Sack only occurs when the Quarterback is attempting a passing play and is tackled. In College Football the negative yards for a Sack are subtracted from the Quarterback’s rushing totals and therefore the team’s total rushing yards, even though the Quarterback was attempting to throw the ball. This is why the total passing and receiving yards in College Football are identical.  However, these numbers are different in the NFL because the negative yards from a Sack are subtracted from the Quarterback’s and therefore the team’s total passing yards and thus that total will differ from the number of receiving yards.


(1)   When the player holding the football is tackled in his own end zone.  The defense gets 2 points plus possession of the football via a kickoff.

(2)   A type of Defensive Back, which can be either a Free Safety or Strong Safety.  See Defensive Back.


A series comprises four consecutive downs that each begins with the snap.


The center hands off the football between his legs to a player standing behind him (usually the quarterback) at the start of each play.  This can also be referred to as a hike or hiking the ball as opposed to snapping it.

Special teams:

This is the unit on the team involved in any of the kicking plays, including the kickoff, the punt and a field goal attempt.


A tackle of a ball carrier on a running play, behind the line of scrimmage.


This is when a player in possession of the football takes the ball across the plane of the other team’s goal line and into the end zone while remaining in bounds.  It is worth 6 points plus the option to run one additional play, which is either to try to kick the ball through the goal posts for one extra point, or to try to get the ball into the end zone again for two extra points.


Many people don’t realize this, but there are actually rules when it comes to the towels some players are wearing on the field.  On scrimmage plays (meaning non-kick-off plays), one white moisture-absorbing towel may be worn by one interior offensive lineman, one offensive backfield player and a maximum of two defensive players. The towels of the offensive backfield and defensive players must be 4 inches by 12 inches and must be worn on the front or side of the belt. There are no restrictions on the size or location of the towel worn by the interior offensive lineman; On free kicks, one white moisture absorbing towel without markings may be worn by a maximum of two kicking team and two receiving team players.  The towels worn on free kicks must be 4 inches by 12 inches and must be worn on the front or side of the belt.


When the offense, the team with the possession of the football, loses it and “turns” it over to the other team either through a fumble (dropping the ball or otherwise losing it to a defensive player) or an interception (when a defensive player catches the ball in the air).


Toward or in the offensive team’s end of the playing field.  From the defense’s point of view it is past the Line of Scrimmage and at or toward the goal line of the offensive team.

Read more:  Positions, Players by Position, or see more under The Basics.