Maintain secure possession of the ball as it touches the ground to make a legal catch.
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The question of whether a football has been caught typically comes with a clear-cut answer. But when a player tries to catch the ball near the ground, or falls to the turf as he's trying to catch the ball, things can get complicated. The line between a catch and an incomplete pass is often very thin. In general, balls cannot touch the field while being caught, but exceptions can be made.
General Catch Rule
The general rule for a legal catch requires a receiver to control the ball вЂњwith his hands or arms before the ball touches the ground,вЂќ according to the 2013-14 NCAA football rules book. If the football hits the field at any time before the receiver secures possession of the ball, the pass will be ruled incomplete. If there is any doubt whether a receiver has fulfilled all the rules regarding a legal catch -- including the question of whether the ball hit the ground prior to possession -- the pass should be ruled incomplete.
Ground Contact Knocks Ball Loose
The definition of a legal football catch involves more than just securing the ball in the receiver's hands. The receiver must complete the process by performing вЂњan act common to the gameвЂќ or by maintaining вЂњcomplete and continuous controlвЂќ if he contacts the ground while catching the ball. For example, if a player dives for the ball, secures it in his hands, but then loses control when the ball touches the ground, the pass is incomplete. The rule applies on the regular field of play and in the end zone.
Ground Contact Doesn't Knock the Ball Loose
If a receiver secures control of a pass, then either falls or is knocked to the ground, but maintains control of the ball, the catch is legal, provided that all other elements of the catch rule are satisfied. This rule applies even if the ball touches the field as the receiver falls to the ground. For example, a pass is ruled complete if a player dives, secures the ball in his hands, then the ball touches the ground as the player lands, as long as the receiver maintains вЂњcomplete and continuous controlвЂќ of the ball.
The high school rule book published by the National Federation of State High School Associations doesn't specifically address instances where the ball touches the ground as it's being caught. However, youth football officials typically interpret the catch rules consistently with NCAA guidelines. To catch passes securely and avoid losing the ball if it touches the ground, catch the ball with your fingers, not your palms or body. To catch low passes before the ball touches the ground, your fingers should be spread and pointing toward the field, with your pinkies touching, as the ball arrives. NFL wide receiver Vincent Jackson recommends doing finger-strengthening drills to better help you catch and secure the ball.