The contact nature of American football has made head acceleration exposure a concern. We aimed to quantify the head kinematics associated with direct helmet contact and inertial head loading events in collegiate-level American football. A cohort of collegiate-level players were equipped with instrumented mouthguards synchronised with time-stamped multiple camera-view video footage of matches and practice. Video-verified contact events were identified as direct helmet contact or inertial head loading events and categorised as blocking, blocked, tackling, tackled or ground contact. Linear mixed-effects models were utilised to compare peak head kinematics between contact event categories. The timestamp-based cross-verification of the video analysis and instrumented mouthguard approach resulted in 200 and 328 direct helmet contact and inertial head loading cases, respectively. Median linear acceleration, angular acceleration and angular velocity for inertial head loading cases was greater than direct helmet contact events by 8% (p = 0.007), 55% (p < 0.001) and 4% (p = 0.007), respectively. Median head kinematics for all contact event categories appeared similar with no pairwise comparison resulting in statistical significance (p > 0.05). The study highlights the potential of combining qualitative video analysis with in-vivo head kinematics measurements. The findings suggest that a number of direct helmet contact events sustained in American football are of lower magnitude to what is sustained during regular play (i.e. from inertial head loading). Additionally, the findings illustrate the importance of including all contact events, including direct helmet contact and inertial head loading cases, when assessing head acceleration exposure and player load during a season of American football.