Longer field, rules changes give Gridiron Kings different feel

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If you think the inaugural Champion Gridiron Kings event (part of the ESPN RISE Games presented by Target) is just another seven-on-seven tournament, think again.

"We're here to inspire, motivate and mentor," said Chris Keldorf, ESPN RISE's director of event development. "These days, there aren't enough role models, and hopefully we'll address it this week."

Gridiron Kings features 64 of the nation's top skill-position players in a seven-on-seven tournament Saturday at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. The game will be televised Tuesday on ESPNU at 7 p.m. ET.

Players arrived Thursday and were assigned coaches, many of whom played in the NFL. Keldorf says the former college and professional players will coach the players on the finer points of the game and advise them to "do the right thing."

"We hope to teach life lessons, something they bring back to their high school teammates, friends and community," Keldorf said. "This isn't all about football, but a bunch of quality guys giving back and telling their stories.

"Kids seem to respond better when they're hearing it from an NFL player. They all want to reach the league and play major college football, and our coaches have been there."

Gridiron Kings will feature Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, who will host the event's welcome dinner, participate in a question-and-answer session, and spend one-on-one and group time with the players in a mentoring and floating coach capacity. Mendenhall will share his story and give on-the-field and off-the-field insights.

Once play begins Saturday morning, the four squads will be broken down geographically -- West, Southwest, Midwest and Southeast -- for three pool games. The semifinals and final are in the afternoon.

Though seven-on-seven competitions differ from state to state, the Gridiron Kings added a few wrinkles. Here's a closer look at key rules of the competition:

• The playing field is 100 yards. Games consist of two 25-minute halves (running clock). At the end of each half, if the team gets into the red zone (inside the 20-yard line), it will be allowed to finish the drive, even if time expires.

• Coin toss determines who starts with the ball; teams can choose to start with the ball in either the first half or second half. Teams start on own 20. First downs are every 20 yards; teams have three plays to achieve a first down. Once a team penetrates the opponent's 20, it has four plays to score. If overtime occurs, play begins at the 25, with no first downs, and teams have four downs to score and must go for two points after each touchdown.

• Defense is emphasized and will be rewarded for three-and-outs. If a team's defense holds the opposing offense to a three-and-out, the team will start at its own 40-yard line rather than the 20. There are no punts.

• Teams are allowed one timeout per half, and timeouts do not carry over to the second half.

• A player is stopped by a one-hand touch below the head.

• Time is at a premium. Once the ball is spotted, teams have 30 seconds to snap the ball. A delay-of-game penalty is a loss of down and 5 yards. Delay of game in the last two minutes of the game is loss of down, yards and the clock will stop. Sacks that occur in the last two minutes also stop the clock.

• The quarterback has four seconds to throw (4.00 is good, 4.01 means penalty). Failure to do so will result in loss of down and a 5-yard penalty. Each team is allowed unlimited handoffs, but no runs are allowed inside the 10. Quarterbacks cannot run the football, only running backs. Reverses or double passes are not allowed.

• Defenses can bump within 5 yards. Holding will be enforced at the line of scrimmage.

• After a touchdown, a PAT from 3 yards is one point; 8 yards is two points. Possession will start at the 20-yard line (no kickoffs). The defense can also return an intercepted PAT for two points. Interceptions can be returned for touchdowns (6 points).

Whereas most seven-on-seven fields are less than 50 yards, Keldorf opted for a regulation field.

"Let them compete on the field they're used to," he said. "There's more space to play and to display their talent. The players need to be in live situations."

Christopher Lawlor has covered high school sports for more than 20 years, most recently with USA Today, where he was the head preps writer responsible for national high school rankings in football, baseball, and boys' and girls' basketball. He also worked for Scholastic Coach magazine, for which he ran the Gatorade national Player of the Year program for nine years. Lawlor, a New Jersey resident, grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.