College fooball players will face a new challenge this season about using their heads.

According one of the new rules instated by the NCAA, if a player’s helmet comes off, he immediately becomes out of play, For practical purposes on that play, he becomes a "dead" player — or a vacated player or whatever terminology you want to use.

For example, if a runner loses his helmet during a play, the ball becomes dead immediately at the spot. If a defender loses a helmet while not in the natural continuation of a tackle, he cannot make a tackle without incurring a personal- foul penalty. A defender cannot tackle a helmetless runner without a personal-foul penalty. A defender who loses a helmet during a play becomes a defenseless player and cannot be blocked without a personal-foul penalty against the offense. If a player other than a runner loses his helmet, he cannot continue participation in the play, but the play continues. If he continues to participate, it’s a 15-yard penalty from the spot the participation began. If his helmet is ripped off, the player does not have to leave the game for a play but must not continue to participate in the play without incurring a 15-yard penalty.

Any player who loses a helmet during a play must sit out the next play. If he loses his helmet twice, he is automatically out of the game.

It leads to some interesting scenarios. If a runner breaks into the open field and the defender closest to him loses his helmet, does he try to make a tackle (which would incur a 15-yard penalty from the spot) or surrender a touchdown? I imagine in that case, it would be like a player getting a pass-interference penalty to save a touchdown if he is beat on a pass play.

What if there’s a fumble, particularly near the goal line, and the player closest to the ball is sans helmet? He cannot legally recover the fumble and if he falls on the ball, possession remains with the offense plus a personal-foul penalty.

The reason? Concussion prevention.

"It’s a major emphasis in college officiating this year," said Byron Boston, an NFL officials who is director of officials for the Southland Conference and Big 12, who gave the media an update on rules changes at this week’s Southland Conference Media Day. "It is supposed to be strictly enforced There have been too much incidences in college football where players have lost helmets and it’s only a matter of time that there would be a serious injury. The NCAA is trying to stay ahead of this, particularly with the growing concern about concussions. If this step doesn’t work, it could lead to a playing automatically having to leave the game if he loses his helmet."

That’s going to lead to coaches reviewing techniques and educating their players.

And a more basic thing: Making sure the helmets fit securely, a first-cousin to safety-seat laws for children. Some players do not have helmets to fit properly and they don’t secure them correct and tighten the facemask because they feel it’s uncomfortable or they are tying to project a macho image.

"We don’t have this problem (players regularly losing helmets) in high school," said Boston. "It hasn’t been a problem in the NFL. The major problem is in college. Riddell makes the same helmets for everyone."

So when coaches talk of a "heady play," there are variations of meaning.

(Sports columnist David MCCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or david.mccollum@thecabin.net)