ATHENS, Ga. -- Seven pairs of black Under Armour pants and striped referee tops sit on a long table inside a meeting room at the Graduate Athens hotel Saturday. There are referee hats at the front of the room and bags of officiating goodies, complete with whistles, down markers, and yellow flags.
Today, seven ESPN personalities -- Edward Aschoff, Kevin Carter, Chris Doering, Brock Huard, Barrett Jones, Greg McElroy and Maria Taylor -- will try their unproven, inexperienced hands at officiating with an SEC crew for Georgia's spring game. It's the brainchild of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who wanted to create a more fan-friendly experiment with digesting a day in the life of an official -- the most enigmatic figure on a football field.
"You have to approach [officiating] as if you're serving someone," says Anthony Jeffries, a nine-year collegiate veteran (three years in the SEC) known for his quick hips and blazing backpedaling as a gazelle-like side judge. "Fans are job security. If you don't do that, get out. At the end of the day, I know half of the stadium is going to hate me."
Jeffries makes things clear: watching football is much faster and much more complicated from the ref's point of view.
Just past 8 a.m. ET, the guest officials meet James Carter's crew inside the meeting room for a massive breakfast. Jeffries lathers what seems like a gallon of syrup on two, thick pieces of pecan waffles, just before shoveling a mound of scrambled eggs on to a plate covered with buttery breakfast items. There's no counting calories here. The more fuel, the more your body will thank you later.
SEC coordinator of officials and NCAA secretary-rules editor for football Steve Shaw, who temporarily returned as referee for Saturday's shenanigans, leads the newcomers through a tutorial for officiating -- a how-to on being professional and how not to screw things up.
"The worst thing you can have as an official is an inadvertent whistle," Shaw says. "Leather on the ground, then blow your whistle."
Shaw outlines the positioning and responsibility of each official. He tells the rookies not to "go searching for penalties" and not to watch the football. He stresses communication, hustle and awareness. Don't lag and don't get lost.
In between orientation and film work, the real officials teach their shadows the ins and outs of their positions. For side judges, it's all about speed and heightened awareness. You're behind the action, so focus on an area, not just a man, and never the ball. Keep your eyes on your man at the snap (offensive player closest to the sideline), then the area closest to your man or your zone, then back to the man when the ball or the player comes near you. This is all happening while you're backpedaling or at a near-backward sprint with your body cocked toward the sideline.
"As the deep guys, we pride ourselves in not getting beat," Jeffries says.
On plays with defenders converging on an offensive player in your zone, watch the guy "swimming upstream" who could land a punishing hit. That's where targeting fouls or unsportsmanlike late hits occur.
Count the defenders on your side and then signal to the other officials with a thumbs up only when the defense has a set 11. To avoid a miscount, Jeffries counts from the opposite sideline in so that he isn't fooled by extra guys running on to the field.
"You wanna lose your credibility? Miss a count," Jeffries says. "Think down, distance, count."
Never officiate the ball, only the man, and a flag is never a toy. Call -- or don't call -- what you believe is right.
"There are two types of C.S. -- common sense and calling s---," he says. "You always win with common sense."
At 12:45 p.m., riding in vans to the stadium, anxiety and nerves creep in. Doering, a former Florida wide receiver, nervously jokes about forgetting everything Shaw went over. Jones and McElroy, former Alabama players, worry aloud about counting players while on the field.
With under an hour until kickoff, the crews jog between the hedges, sticking to Shaw's most important rule of no walking on the field, only jogging. The side judges are lightly sprinting and swiveling their hips up and down the sideline to get loose. The side judges concentrate on the movements of the receivers and the defensive backs, learning their tendencies. Does this receiver have quick, soft hands or does he bobble passes? Is this defensive back too aggressive on his pursuit?
The sun beams down, and it’s almost game time.
"You come out strong, chest up," Jeffries says. "Let people in the stadium know you're here. It's a presence, it's an attitude."
After the 2 p.m. kickoff, the real crew handles the first series of the game, but once the guest crew hits the field, things begin to blur.
Immediately, you're out of position and "down, distance, count" are long gone. You're a good 30 yards away from the line of scrimmage, 10 yards farther than you should be. You think you're counting, but with how quickly guys move on and off the sideline, you aren't sure.
The sweat mounts with every backward thrust of your legs on the first few running plays, which Jeffries and real umpire Russ Pulley love.
"Man, they might not beat you on the pass, but you'll never see a run with how far back you are," Pulley says with a bellowing laugh.
Despite moving closer, it’s easy to get lost watching players fly out of the zone. When the side judge forgets to relay the football to the umpire on plays outside the hash marks, it gives Huard, the head linesman, more work.
"Don't worry, I've got you all day," Huard says both playfully and sarcastically, as Pulley and Jeffries snicker.
The side judges aren’t challenged, until Jacob Eason heaves a 47-yard bomb to Javon Wims down the sideline to begin the second quarter. Fortunately, there is enough cushion to watch the ball once Wims catches it and muscles through the defender and on to the ground for a tremendous catch at the 7-yard line.
That play provides a confidence boost and some rhythm. You still ball watch (as Jeffries points out), but not as much. You're perfectly positioned on most field goals and extra points, and you learn that once the ball is between the 25-yard line and the 7, that's your goal line. One resounding blemish is missing a blatant hold in the second half on a run, which Huard calls.
Once 3:45 arrives, the day is done and it's off to the replay booth to debrief. On the way up, the guest refs all sort of sigh, none knowing a thing that happened in the game, let alone the score.
"That's faster than it looks," Carter says.
All and all, this rag-tag group didn't ruin Georgia's spring game and found newfound respect for officiating, but no urge to peer farther down the rabbit hole.
"Remember, that was just half-speed," Shaw says.
Yeah, so let the pros handle it.