Football 101: Introduction to the Basics of Football

high school football

(Ventura County, Ca) It’s considered one of America’s most popular sports and yet so many people don’t know how it works. If your kid is on the team and you want to know the basics, then this one is for you.

Here is our overview of the basic lessons and rules of the game.

The objective of football is to score points by carrying the ball from a starting point on a 100-yard long by 52-yard wide field into a specially marked 10 yard area at either end of the field called an “the end zone.” Each team uses the end zone in front of them to score while trying to prevent the opposing team from reaching the end zone behind them.

Each end zone has a Y-shaped structure called a field goal which is positioned on the end line. The field goals are used to score points with special kicks.

At a certain point, the teams will switch sides. The end zone that a team is defending is usually referred to as “their” end zone. Thus, a team with 75 yards to go before it can score a touchdown is 25 yards from its end zone.

Teams trade possession of the ball according to strict rules. Whichever team is in possession of the ball is known as the “offense;” the team that does not have possession of the ball and that is trying to prevent the other side from scoring is called the “defense” since they are trying to “defend” the end zone from the team trying to score.

Lesson 1
Structure of the Game

The opening kickoff: Before the game starts, the head referee flips a coin and the home team captain calls out which side of the coin will be face up. If correct, that captain may choose to kick off or to receive the opening kickoff or allow the visiting team captain to make that choice. Once the kicking and receiving teams are decided, the team captain who lost the coin toss gets to decide which goal his or her team will defend during the first half.

This initial play is called the kickoff, and typically involves a long kick down field from one team to the other, with the team that kicked the ball rushing towards the team receiving the ball in order to prevent them from running the ball a long ways back towards the kicking team’s end zone.

After halftime, there is a second kickoff by whichever team did not perform the opening kickoff. Throughout the second half, the end zones each team defends is the one opposite the end zone that team defended in the first half.

Downs: The word “down” in football is used similarly to the word “chance” or “plays” in other sports. The offense is allowed four downs to move the ball at least 10 yards forward. You will hear the terms “1st down,” “second down,” “third down,” and “fourth down.” If the team is on their 2nd down (or 2nd chance) to get the ball 10 yards further down the field and the player gets the ball 11 yards further down the field, then the downs reset to “first down” with 4 more tries again to get the ball another 10 yards further. This means that a team that moves the ball 10 or more yards on each play will never be on the second down. Every time the ball is moved 10 yards or more in the proper direction, the next play is a first down with 10 yards to go.

When calling out “what down it is” the common response is to say which down it is along with how many yards they need to achieve the 10 yards. So “1st and 10” is used to indicate that the standard 10 yards are once again required to reset to the first down. If on the 1st down, the offense advances the ball 3 yards, then it will become “2nd and 7” since the offense needs 7 additional yards to achieve another 1st down.

The downs count from one to four. If four downs pass without resetting to the first down, control of the ball passes to the other team.

Football Positions on the Field

The Line of Scrimmage, is the point on which the ball starts when the down begins. So if the ball starts on the 35th yard line, the offense has 65 more yards to go in order to achieve a “touchdown.” If a play ends with the ball behind the line of scrimmage, the difference in yards is added to the total number of yards required for a first down. For example, if the quarterback is tackled or “sacked” 7 yards behind the line with the ball in his hands, the next play will be noted as “2nd and 17,” meaning that 17 yards must be covered in the next three plays to reset to a first down.

If on the 4th down the offense does not achieve the 10 yards needed for a 1st down, the possession of the ball switches to the other team from that same point on the field. This is often considered a great advantage to the other side. Therefore, to avoid providing this advantage, the offense may choose to “punt” or kick the ball down the field to the other side to lengthen the distance the other team must travel to achieve a touchdown.

Lesson 2

Players & Positions on the Field

Each team is allowed to have eleven players on the field at once.

Different team members hold different positions and have different duties on the field. Most competitive teams are actually composed of three separate teams of players, each of which is rotated onto the field to perform one type of task. Players are also “on the bench” to replace other team members when needed.

First, there is a head coach that manages the whole team. Typically, another coach called the “Offensive Coordinator” that manages the offense. In addition, a difference coach called “Defensive Coordinator” manages the defense. There may also be a “Special Team Coordinator” to manage special teams. Depending on the leadership of the head coach, each of these other coaches has certain authority over their group.

  • The offensive team includes the following players:
    • The quarterback, can throw or hand-off a pass to a number of players on the field including the running back, fullback, wide receiver, tight end, or may run the ball themselves up the field.
    • The offensive line stands on the line of scrimmage and is composed of the center, two guards, and two tackles. This group works together to defend the other players from the other team’s defense while the ball is being handed off or passed. The center is directly in front of the quarterback and give the ball to the quarterback in what is called a “snap.” These can be short or long snaps via tossing the ball backwards while bent over. The guards are on both sides of the center’s shoulders, and the tackles line up on each guard’s shoulders.
    • Wide receivers, who run over the line of scrimmage and catch the ball if a pass is being thrown.
    • The running back, who takes the ball from the quarterback and runs it towards the end zone.
    • Tight ends, who help defend the outside edges of the line and can also catch the ball in case of a pass.
  • The defensive team comprises the following players:
    • Linebackers, who defend against passing plays and also rush through the line and blitz (or run toward) the quarterback.
    • The defensive line, who keep the pressure on the offensive line. They can also blitz the quarterback.
    • Cornerbacks and safeties, who defend players trying to receive a pass or trying to run the ball down the field past the defensive line. They can also blitz the quarterback, as well.
  • The third team is the “Special Teams” which is sometimes composed of players on both defense and offense. This team is used any time the ball will be kicked. Their job is to allow the person kicking the ball to make a clean kick without being harassed by the other team. They are usually on the field for one play at a time and then transition off.

Lesson 3
How to Score Points

The goal of the game is to score more points than the opposing team. In the case of a tie, an additional 15 minute overtime period is usually played.

  • Scoring is as follows:
    • A touchdown is when the football is successfully carried into the proper end zone by a player (or caught by a player standing in the proper end zone). A touchdown is worth 6 points.
    • After a team has achieved a touchdown they get an extra down to score more points. They may choose to use that down in a few ways:
      • Kick: An extra point, wherein a player kicks the football between the goal posts after his team has scored a touchdown. This is worth 1 point.
      • Pass to End Zone: When the touchdown play is followed by a passing or running play into the end zone instead of a kick, the play is called a “two point conversion,” and is worth 2 points.
    • If a team has not achieved a touchdown but is within a distance that a “Kicker” can successfully kick the ball into the field goal, they may do so. A field goal is achieved when a player kicks the football between the goal posts without having scored a touchdown on the previous play. This is worth 3 points.
    • The defense can score points if they are able to tackle a player in the other team’s end zone while the other player is holding the ball. This is called a “Safety.” So if Team A has the ball and Team B is on defense, Team B tackles the quarterback in Team B’s end zone (100 yards away from the offense’s end zone), then the defense scores 2 points.

Lesson 4
Organization of the Game

Football is divided into four quarters of 15 minutes each, with a break between the second and third periods called “halftime” that is normally 12 minutes long.

A play begins when the ball is moved from the ground into the hands of the players, and ends when either the ball hits the ground, or the person holding the ball is tackled and his knee or elbow touches the ground.

When a play is over, an official (called a referee), places the ball on the yard marker which corresponds to his or her judgment of the place where the forward progress of the player with the ball was stopped.

As discussed earlier, each team has 4 downs and within those downs, they have to make ten yards from the line of scrimmage (the starting point). If the team fails to do so within the 4 downs, the offensive team has to hand over the ball to the opposing team. If the offense succeeds in taking the ball 10 yards in the 4 downs they get another 4 downs to move the ball 10 yards. The teams have 30 seconds to get into formation and begin the next play.

Play time can stop for a few different reasons. Time can stop when a player runs out of bounds, a penalty is called, a flag is thrown, or a pass is thrown but not caught by anybody (an incomplete pass). Any of these will cause the clock to stop while referees decide what happens next.

Penalties are common in football. They are indicated by referees who throw yellow flags onto the field when they see a violation. This lets everyone on the field know that a penalty has been called. Penalties normally result in the offending team losing between 5 – 15 yards of field position. There are many penalties, but some of the most common are:

  • “Offside” (someone was on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped)
  • “Holding” (a player grabbed another player with his hands, and either player doesn’t have the ball, instead of blocking him properly)
  • “False start” (When a player moves before the ball is snapped)
  • “Unsportsmanlike conduct” (When a player does something that doesn’t show good sportsmanship, and
  • “Clipping” (someone contacted an opposing player other than the ball carrier from behind and below the waist).

Referees communicate to the crowd whatever happened in the last play using hand signals (that almost looks like sign language). If there is a penalty, the head referee (who is usually in the center of the field) will come to the center and announce which penalty was called. (See NCAA hand gesture chart below)
Football referee hand signals

High school football ranks among the most popular in interscholastic sports. Enjoy the fun!

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