Changes to kicking rules, meant to limit concussions and high-speed collisions, have coaches spending extra practice time on potential new strategies.
When the college football season kicks off this week, fans will notice a few differences. Starting with, well, the kickoff.
Among the rule changes enacted in the offseason is one moving the spot from where the ball is kicked off, from the 30-yard line to the 35.
The NCAA did so in an attempt to reduce the number of high-speed collisions that can result in concussions and other injuries.
The kicking team also cannot line up behind the 30-yard line, which effectively means getting no more than a 5-yard running head start, in a further attempt to reduce high-speed collisions.
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That might seem an inducement for the kicking team to just find the strongest-legged kicker possible and pound it through the end zone every time.
However, the NCAA also moved the spot where the ball is placed after touchbacks to the 25, from its previous placement on the 20 (though touchbacks on other plays, such as punts, remain at the 20).
All of that has coaches such as Washington’s Steve Sarkisian wondering what to do — just kick for the touchback every time, or try something else, such as pooching it in an attempt to trap teams nearer the goal line?
“Five yards is 5 yards, as we know,” Sarkisian said. “If we ran the ball on first-and-10 (from the 20) and got 5, I would be happy. So that aspect is unique because of the fact that although the ball is moved up 5 yards to the 35 now to kick from, the coverage team is only getting a 5-yard running start.
“And so common sense tells you they can’t get downfield as far by the time the ball lands, and so if I caught that ball where I would have normally caught it on the 2-yard line and be returning it, now I’m catching it 3 yards deep and if I took a knee I get it on the 25. (But) if the coverage unit is now 10 yards behind where they normally are, math tells me I should bring that out.
“So that’s what we’re working through, we’re working on everything on film every night, and trying to look at where the coverage unit is, based on where the ball is in comparison to where we were last year.”
At that point, Sarkisian added, “We’re probably (getting) a bit too scientific on this thing. But we’re in training camp, we’ve got a lot of time, so we’re looking at every angle of it.”
UW special-teams coach Johnny Nansen said the new rules will mean doing a bit more scouting of the opponent each week to try to figure out what its approach will be.
“We’re changing — game-plan-wise, depending on who is kicking for them — our kickoff return,” he said. “Obviously if it’s a guy with a great hang time, take a knee and take it at the 25, but if it’s a line drive, we’re going to bring it out.”
Nansen said significant portions of special-teams practices have been devoted to adapting to the new rule limiting the running head starts.
“It’s going to be a little different,” he said. “We’re trying to find ways to get some momentum on our get-offs and stuff like that.”
Those aren’t the only rules changes impacting special teams. On onside kicks, the return team can call a fair catch on a “one-bounce, high-hopper.” Also, on punts, coverage teams will not be allowed to penetrate an 18-inch area in front and to the side of returners. Previously, they could run directly past the returner, though without touching him.
There is also a new rule prohibiting players from leaping over blockers in an attempt to block a punt. An NCAA release last February stated: “Receiving-team players trying to jump over a shield-blocking scheme has become popular for teams in punt formation. Receiving-team players try to defeat this scheme by rushing into the backfield to block a punt. In some cases, these players are contacted and end up flipping in the air and landing on their head or shoulders.”
The kickoff rules, though, figure to draw the most notice from fans. The NCAA stated when the changes were announced that it had determined that more injuries occur on kickoffs than any other play.
The NFL made a similar change to move kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 before the 2011 season, though leaving the spot of the touchback at the 20. A January ESPN.com story reported the number of touchbacks in the NFL increased from 16.4 percent in 2010 to 43.5 percent in 2011, and an NFL study reported that it helped decrease the number of concussions on kickoffs from 35 in 2010 to 20 in 2011.
Sarkisian, though, said the NCAA’s twist in the rules make it hard to tell if the changes will decrease collisions and injuries.
“It will if people take a knee, then it works,” he said. “It won’t if people think the advantage is to bring the ball out of the end zone because the coverage unit isn’t as far downfield. Then, no, I don’t think it will work because if a guy brings it out, then here we come, full-speed collisions.
“I think we’ve got to kind of play it out and see at the end of the year, based on the stats of the conference and around the country, the numbers of returns per nonreturn as compared to the last five years.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @bcondotta