New rules on kickoffs in bid to curtail injuries
When the major college football season kicks off Thursday, those kickoffs will be 5 yards closer to midfield.
The most notable and noticeable of several rules changes made by the NCAA rules committee for this season moved the spot of kickoffs up from the 30 to the 35-yard line. Also, the kicking teams can line up no more than 5 yards from the 35 when the ball is kicked. And when a touchback does occur on a kickoff, the offense will start at the 25-yard line instead of the 20.
The reasoning is simple: More touchbacks should equal fewer injuries.
''NCAA data indicates injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game,'' the NCAA said on its website.
In addition, the receiving team will be able to call for a fair catch on those high-bouncing, one-hop onside kicks that often result in players taking hard hits with no way to defend themselves.
Not everybody was thrilled with the change.
''No, I'm not in favor,'' Kansas State coach Bill Snyder said. ''I'm in favor of the safety in the game, and that was the intent. I can appreciate the intent. No problem with that. Don't really like from a strategic standpoint the rule itself. You know, it doesn't completely dissolve what the issues were, depending on the strength of the leg of your kicker.''
Generally, though, the changes have received a thumbs up.
''I think anything that can help with the injuries is a positive,'' Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. ''Heck, the NFL is doing it. We ought to do it. Some of the big blows and the big injuries do come with those big collisions on kickoffs and to limit some of those, I think is a good thing.''
The NFL made a similar move last season, moving the spot of kickoffs up 5 yards to the 35, though touchbacks still came out to the 20, and cutting down the running starts for the coverage teams.
The result was more touchbacks, but also more kick returners taking the ball out from way back into the end zone.
''We've seen the NFL (preseason) games,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ''Everybody's returning every kickoff from 8, 9 yards deep. I saw one where a guy is 9 1/2 yards deep and he almost took it out of bounds and returned it.''
Spotting the ball at the 25 should discourage that type of risk-taking by the college kids. From 5 yards deep, it'll take a 30-yard return to get to the 25. The top kick returner in the country, Purdue's Raheem Mostert, averaged 33.48 yards per return. Seven others averaged more than 30 per return.
''We didn't bring the ball out too much before,'' Missouri receiver and returner T.J. Moe said. ''Really, there weren't too many kickers who put it in the end zone last year. So there will be more this year. We'll take it out sometimes, but if you can get the ball at the 25, you're in good shape.''
Still, expect to see teams with elite return men be more aggressive.
''You have to think long and hard about bringing the ball out,'' Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. ''And I think it depends on the player you have back there. With (former Missouri All-American) Jeremy Maclin, we'd probably put him back there and say, `Come out anytime you want,' because of the potential of the big play.''
Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson said: ''I'd be surprised if people are still returning as much as they did.''
Arkansas coach John L. Smith expects his dangerous kick returner, Dennis Johnson, to provide excitement - and angst. Johnson, a senior, has three kickoff return touchdowns in his career and a solid 24.3-yard average.
''Dennis would have a tendency to bring some out ... `Stay in, stay in, stay in Dennis. Oops, here we go.' I'm sure that will happen,'' Smith said.
Of course, even with an extra 5 yards, not every team has a kicker that can routinely reach the end zone. If you're one of those coaches, and you're coverage team now takes longer to get down the field because they aren't getting a running start, what do you do?
Kick it higher to give your tacklers more time? Maybe kick a line drive that skids. Plenty of teams already use those strategies, especially when kicking to the most skilled returners.
Last season, Miami coach Al Golden had his kickers aiming for the sidelines to try to pin a returner into a corner.
''Certainly, what you'll find out early is every coach's philosophy in terms of that,'' he said. ''Are they just trying to kick it out of the end zone? Are they kicking it deep? What are they doing, are they line-driving it? It'll be interesting to see.''
Ultimately, though, the players will dictate the strategy more than the rule itself.
''Depends on who we're facing,'' Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said about how the Buckeyes would handle kicking off. ''(If) we're facing a freak, that's a problem. Yeah, kick it out of the end zone. The 25-yard line where they get it back, that 5 yards that's a big difference. If it's someone we can handle I think, we're going to try to drop it in there. If it's a guy who we don't want to touch the ball, we'd like to drive it deep.''
AP sports writers Antonio Gonzalez in Stanford, Calif.; Jeff Latzke in Norman, Okla., Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio; Tim Reynolds in Coral Gables, Fla., and Kurt Voigt in Fayetteville, Ark.; and AP freelance writer Jake Kreinberg in Columbia, Mo., contributed.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP