Caution is the new calling card of the NCAA football rules committee. The committee introduced a handful of rules to increase player safety last month that will lead coaches to rethink their kickoff strategies heading into the fall.
Notre Dame freshman Kyle Brindza kicks off during Notre Dame's 56-14 win over Navy last October.
The NCAA approved a trio of new rules that they hope will reduce what it has deemed the most dangerous play in football, the kick return. New medical research about football injuries and high profile cases like the paralysis of Rutgers’ Eric LeGrand have made safety a larger priority in recent years. The NCAA said the tweaks to kickoff rules should result in more touchbacks and less injuries.
The first change is moving the starting point from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. The National Football League made the same adjustment last season and saw a dramatic increase in touchbacks. In 2010, New Orleans kicker Billy Cundiff led the league with 50.6 percent of his kickoffs staying in the end zone. In 2011, five kicker had a touchback rate higher than 60 percent. The change led to 40 percent fewer concussions on kickoff plays, according to the league’s competition committee chairman, Rich McKay.
Notre Dame and its opponents would have seen an even bigger leap in touchbacks if they had started from the 35 last season. Irish kickers booted 13 of their 73 kickoffs into the end zone and kept them there. They landed 20 more kicks inside the 5-yard line. That’s a 154 percent increase in potential touchbacks.
Notre Dame’s return team received nine balls in the end zone last year and kneeled on them four times. Under the new rules 25 balls would have sailed past the goal line, which could have resulted in up to a 400 percent increase in touchbacks.
Irish coach Brian Kelly said he’s more concerned with where his players will start than where the ball will start. A second addition to the rulebook states that players can begin the kickoff no farther than five yard behind the ball, which eliminates a long head start for the tacklers.
“We were at 11 yards [behind the line of scrimmage] with our deepest players running to time up the kickoffs. So we've got to see from a static position at five yards what that looks like,” Kelly said. “And, of course, we'll experiment. We'll have a guy at 11 yards and one at five, and we'll see where that wall now takes us in terms of the separation.”
The final rule provides a little more incentive for returners to stay in the end zone by moving the ball out to the 25-yard line after a touchback instead of the 20-yard line. Based on last year’s numbers, returners would be smart to take that deal. Notre Dame and its opponents brought a combined 12 kicks out of the end zone last season and none made it past the 25. The issue going forward will be mainly whether kicking teams give them the chance to down the ball.
“It might be that we look to get more hang time on our kickoffs than per se kicking it out, because now you start on the 25,” Kelly said.
He said for Notre Dame’s opponents five yards in field position didn’t make a significant difference in scoring chances last year, but other coaches — such as Colorado’s Jon Embree — think the change will be large enough to persuade some teams to avoid kicking the ball all the way to the end zone.
Embree, in an interview earlier this month, said he could envision the new rule changes backfiring and leading to more injuries than in the past. In order to avoid such generous starting field position, kicking teams might opt for high, shorter kicks that turn the receiving players into sitting ducks.
The three new rules add a new piece to the sideline chess match in 2012, it will be interesting to see how coaches decide to use it.