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August 19, 2007
Changes have players, coaches talking
» MORE: COUNTDOWN TO KICKOFF ARCHIVE
A passionate crowd – 80,000 strong – roars with the euphoria of anticipation.
The referee whistles for play to begin.
A kicker smacks the football off its tee with such force that it sails high into a crisp, blue autumn sky.
The coverage team charges downfield. The crowd noise builds to a crescendo. The ball descends into the hands of the receiver.
Who then takes a knee?
Nothing in college football is more anticlimactic than touchbacks, but a rule change could put them on the endangered list.
The NCAA rules committee approved a change this year in which the point of kickoff is moved back 5 yards to the kicking team's 30-yard line. It's only a 5-yard difference, but many feel that it will have dramatic ramifications, both negatively and positively.
Advocates say the change will alter the approach to the game's most basic play and increase scoring.
Critics worry that it will also increase injuries.
Without doubt, it has already increased discussion.
"It's going to be one of the most significant rule changes to come about in recent years – maybe a decade – in college football," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "Very few teams will have a guy who can kick it into the touchback area or out of the end zone. You're going to see offenses starting with a lot better field position. You're going to see scoring averages go up because of this rule change. You're going to see a lot more gimmicks on kickoff coverage – pooch kicking, possible squib kicking.
"There may be some people that decide they want to kick it out of bounds and give it to the team at the 35-yard line rather than kicking it deep and having a return out to the 40 or 45."
At least part of the motivation for the move is to expedite the game. Last year, the committee invoked a controversial rule in which the game clock started after a change of possession when the ball was marked ready for play by the referee.
That rule, which significantly reduced the number of plays in the game, was repealed. Once again, the game clock will not start after a change of possession until the ball is snapped.
That change was widely applauded.
2007 FOOTBALL RULES CHANGES
"You're playing with part-time players, maybe a guy that goes to school most of the day and comes back to play football for a few hours. That excitement is something that I think makes fans so into college football. By restoring that we can maintain a real fun atmosphere that's unpredictable."
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville agreed.
"I was on the 12-man committee that last year changed it over," he said. "We thought we cut out too many plays. The one thing that the committee does not want to do is affect the quality of college football.
"We thought that cutting out 12, 15, 17 plays (a game) was just too much. So we went back to the drawing board and looked at things where the clock would run a little bit more other than starting it at the change of possession - the kicking from the 30-yard line. That will be a major rule change. I think it will add more points to the scoreboard. I think it will be a lot better for the offenses."
No one is arguing that.
At least one coach suggested three-times as many kickoffs will be returned than were last season, and there is no question that better field position enhances scoring opportunities.
"I asked coach (Tony) Ball, our kick return coach, about how many kicks were we returning percentage-wise last year," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "He said we only really returned about 25 percent of the kicks. Now, we predict we'll be returning 75 to 90 percent of the kicks. That's going to be at least two, maybe three times as many kicks we're returning this year than we did a year ago.
"You think if you move the ball back 5 yards, you're probably going to get five more yards of field position. My guess is it will be more like 10 to 15 yards of field position because that kickoff return is going to create a lot more space."
Colorado coach Dan Hawkins estimated that on average a receiving team will now have to cover only about two thirds of the field to score a touchdown.
"Our approach has always been if you can catch the ball, bring it because the rewards are big," he said. "Now, everyone is going to be able to field those balls and there's not going to be many touchbacks. I bet that starting point is going to be around the 30."
Return specialists probably relish the rule, but at least one kicker likes it, too.
"I think it's a good move," Texas Tech kicker Alex Trlica said. "I think there were too many touchbacks in college football to begin with. It's almost 50 percent, it seems like.
"The return game is one of the more exciting plays in football. An explosive play like that can turn the whole game. Five yards doesn't seem like a whole lot when it comes to returns, but it is. Think about how many kickoffs a return man will catch 5 yards into the end zone and take a knee. If he catches that on the goal line … he has to take that out every time. That's going to take away a lot of the touchbacks and make the game more exciting."
But is the extra excitement worth it?
Most injuries occur on running plays where ball carriers and tacklers collide at a high rate of speed. No play includes those factors more than the kickoff. Tacklers have the momentum of running full speed for 50 yards or more to tackle a player who's running at full speed the opposite direction.
"I'm a contrarian, I guess, and I'm old enough that I don't have to agree with everything that goes on," Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. "The most violent play in all of football is the kickoff. Now we're going to move the ball back 5 yards. That creates more g-forces as kids run into each other.
"I'm not in favor of moving (the kickoff) back 5 yards - not because of excitement of the game, but because I'm worried about the health of the kids. Maybe more kids will get hurt, but more kickoffs will be returned."
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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