In American football and Canadian football, not all players on offense are entitled to receive a forward pass. Only an eligible pass receiver may legally catch a forward pass, and only an eligible receiver may advance beyond the neutral zone if a forward pass which crosses the neutral zone is thrown. If the pass is received by a non-eligible receiver, the penalty for the foul "illegal touching" is assessed (the play is treated as an incomplete pass, unless the ball is downed behind the line of scrimmage — in either case a down is lost). If an ineligible receiver is beyond the neutral zone when a forward pass which crosses the neutral zone is thrown, a foul of "ineligible receiver downfield" (penalty—a loss of yardage, but not loss of down) is called. Each league has slightly different rules regarding who is and is not considered an eligible receiver.
The NCAA rulebook defines eligible receivers for college football in Rule 7, Section 3, Article 3. The determining factors are the player's position on the field at the snap and their jersey number. Specifically, any players on offense wearing numbers between 50 and 79 are always ineligible. All defensive players are eligible receivers and offensive players who are not wearing an ineligible number are eligible receivers if they meet one of the following three criteria:
- Player is at either end of the group of players on the line of scrimmage (usually the split end and tight end)
- Player is lined up at least one yard behind the line of scrimmage (running backs, fullbacks, etc.)
- Player is positioned to receive a hand-to-hand snap from the center (almost always the quarterback)
Players may only wear eligible numbers at an ineligible position when it is obvious that a punt or field goal is to be attempted.
A receiver loses his eligibility by leaving the field of play unless he was forced out by a defensive player and immediately attempts to get back inbounds (Rule 7-3-4). All players on the field become eligible as soon as the ball is touched by a defensive player or an official during play (Rule 7-3-5).
In both American and Canadian professional football, every player on the defensive team is considered eligible. The offensive team must have at least seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage. Of the players on the line of scrimmage, only the two players on the ends of the line of scrimmage are eligible receivers. The four remaining players in the backfield (five in Canadian football), including the quarterback, are also eligible receivers—except in the National Football League, where a quarterback who takes the snap from "under center" is never eligible.
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