Proposed rule would radically change kickoffs

Coaches talk all the time about the importance of special teams, and a new rules proposal made last week could make them more important than they already are.

The NCAA Football Rules Committee announced Thursday that for safety reasons, it was proposing that kickoffs be moved from the 30 to the 35 and that a touchback would result in the ball being placed at the 25 instead of the 20. In addition, kicking-team players would have to be no closer than 5 yards from the 35 at the kick.

Because the rules would be changed to enhance the safety of the players, the proposal would go into effect this fall. The rule must be approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which meets via conference call Feb. 21. The proposal first has been sent to the NCAA membership for comment.

Would top-level kick returners like Oregon's DeAnthony Thomas become more or less valuable under this proposed new rule?
(Getty Images)

The NFL changed its kickoff rules before the 2011 season, moving the kickoff from the 30 to the 35 but not changing touchbacks.

The NCAA release on the proposed change noted that “NCAA data indicated injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game.”

NCAA stats shows that there were an average of 4.2 kickoff returns per game in the FBS ranks last season, with the high being 5.0 per game in the WAC and the low at 3.4 in SEC games. Also of note: There were 68 kickoff returns for touchdowns, on 6,341 kickoffs.

Presumably, the change is being proposed to appeal to coaches on both sides of the issue. There should be fewer returns, which means a team with a good kicker shouldn’t allow that many returns. The trade-off is that instead of getting the ball at the 20, the receiving team then would get it at the 25 on a touchback.

What it might lead to, though, is more directional kickoffs. Punters can do it, so why not kickers, too? If the rule indeed is changed, look for more “pooch” kickoffs, which could mean a radical change for special teams coaches. Do you want a guy who can boom the ball through the end zone, or do you want a guy who is adept at kicking the ball high and placing it around the 15 or so?

You also wonder if top-level kick returners would become even more valuable. Do coaches risk having a player gather in a kickoff 5 yards deep in the end zone and taking it out? Or will it be that most coaches are fine with starting at their 25 on touchbacks?

That wasn’t the only proposed rules change. The others:

• There’s a potentially big one involving the loss of a helmet during a play, which seemingly happened once on every single drive in every single game last season. (Actually, the NCAA said it happened a bit more than twice per game in 2011.) The change is that if a player’s helmet comes off other than when there is a penalty on an opposing player for pulling it off, the player who loses the helmet would have to sit out the next play. In addition, once a player loses his helmet, his participation in a play is over.

• The rule on blocking below the waist was clarified. The change would be that offensive players in the tackle box at the snap who are not in motion would be allowed to block below the waist without restriction. All other players are restricted from blocking below the waist.

• Players rushing the punter would not be allowed to jump over blockers.

• Finally, there was a proposal to tighten the interpretation of when a punt returner has enough time to complete a catch before allowing contact by the kicking team.

“Without question, these changes will enhance student-athlete safety, and we feel very comfortable based on the data we collected that the impact will be significant,” said Scot Dapp, chairman of the NCAA committee and athletic director at Division III Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa.

Moving on

New Arizona State coach Todd Graham hired former Memphis coach Larry Porter as his running backs coach last week. Porter, an excellent recruiter, lasted just two seasons as Memphis’ coach.

Here’s a look at where the other coaches who were fired last season have ended up:

Butch Davis: Davis, who was fired at North Carolina in July, will be a defensive consultant for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Everett Withers, who was UNC’s interim coach this past season, is the new co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. He will share those duties with Luke Fickell, who was Ohio State’s interim coach this past season.

Steve Fairchild: He was fired at Colorado State and has been hired as an offensive assistant with the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. Fairchild is a former NFL assistant.

[ Related: Grading college football’s offseason coaching hires ]

Turner Gill: He had a rough two-season stretch at Kansas, and after he was fired, he was hired as coach at FCS member Liberty.

Pat Hill: The former Fresno State coach is the new offensive line coach for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Hill is another former NFL assistant.

Rob Ianello: The former Akron coach has been hired as wide receivers coach at Kansas. He also will serve as the Jayhawks’ recruiting coordinator.

Huguenin mailbag

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Mike Locksley: He had an extremely rocky three-season tenure at New Mexico, and now is back as Maryland’s offensive coordinator. He was a Terps assistant from 1997-2002.

Mike Sherman: He was fired at Texas A&M and recently was hired as the Miami Dolphins’ offensive coordinator. Sherman is a former NFL coach and assistant.

Mike Stoops: Arizona fired him and his brother rehired him, as defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. He served in the same position before going to Arizona.

Jim Tressel: The disgraced former Ohio State coach, who was fired last summer, was hired as a vice president at Akron; his position is not in the athletic department.

Dennis Erickson, Greg McMackin, Howard Schnellenberger and Bob Toledo: The four have retired after leaving Arizona State, Hawaii, Florida Atlantic and Tulane, respectively.

Neil Callaway, Rick Neuheisel, Houston Nutt, Paul Wulff and Ron Zook: It appears as if this quintet will sit out the 2012 season, though TV is a possibility for Neuheisel and Nutt.

Changing times

Last month, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy signed an eight-year contract worth almost $30 million. That’s on top of bonuses totaling about $750,000 that were paid to Gundy and his staff after the 2011 season.

Gundy received a bonus of about $153,000 following this past season, including $100,000 for the Big 12 title. Had the Cowboys made the BCS title game, Gundy would’ve been in line for another $500,000 bonus.

With all that money, Gundy says the perception of his program has changed, at least internally. He said players and coaches now expect to win; before, they were hopeful. The key, he said, is continuing to win so those outside the program think the same way.

“Now, we have 35,000 fans tailgate before our games,” he said. “When I was in school here, it was about 3,500. So our game day is like any big-time school in the country. Our fans come to the game knowing we have a chance to win. Our players know they have a chance to win. We have a product to market and a product to sell. In our profession, that has to happen. And if we continue to improve, people will see us like those [traditional] programs.”

Grid bits

• Coach Steve Spurrier’s wallet will benefit from the best back-to-back seasons in South Carolina history. He recently received a raise, to $3.3 million annually. He will be No. 5 on the SEC’s highest-paid list, behind Alabama’s Nick Saban, LSU’s Les Miles, Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino and Auburn’s Gene Chizik.

• Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott continues to think big. After a recent meeting in Salt Lake City with conference presidents and athletic directors, Scott told reporters that it’s important for the league’s schools to get more worldwide notice. To that end, he said he was exploring ways for league teams to play in China. “We look at it as the gateway to the Pacific Rim, and we already have a large population of Asian students and alumni, so there is a very natural connection,” he said. He also said that while he can’t see regular-season games taking place in China anytime soon, he can see competition in the summer.

* [ Video: Did Jerry Sandusky’s wife try to run down reporter? ]

• Texas A&M, which is moving into the SEC this season, last week finalized plans for an 11th game. The Aggies will open their season Aug. 30, a Thursday, against Louisiana Tech in Shreveport, La. Louisiana Tech will play at A&M in 2016. The matchup with Tech is a dangerous one for A&M, which still needs one more game for the fall. A&M will be breaking in a new coaching staff, a new quarterback, a new go-to receiver and three new starters in the secondary. Tech, meanwhile, will return 17 starters from a team that won the WAC and lost a close one to TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl.

• Houston is moving into the Big East, and students at the school recently passed a fee increase to begin construction on a new football stadium.

Vanderbilt coach James Franklin received a lot of attention for his comments on National Signing Day when he said players who decommitted from his program were “not men of honor” and “not men of integrity.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked some other coaches about those comments and about decommitments in general; one of the coaches was North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, who, as it turned out, had a player commit to UNC but sign with – you guessed it – Vandy. Fedora to the AJC: “What does he say about the kids that were committed elsewhere and decommitted from their places to go to his place? That’s my comment. What is his comment on those people? He’s got someone in his recruiting class that did that very thing. He’s saying those guys are not men of honor? Basically, he’s saying he has got kids in his own recruiting class that are not men of honor. He said that, and I didn’t.” In this case, Patton Robinette, a quarterback from Maryville, Tenn., actually enrolled early at North Carolina before leaving school and signing with Vandy. staffer Olin Buchanan contributed to this report.

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Mike Huguenin is a Yahoo! Sports college sports editor. Send Mike a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Feb 12, 2012