Stuart McNair

Citing safety issue, the kickoff may be eliminated or altered in college football

What would be best solution for issue of player safety on kickoffs?

In 1986, Alabama went to Knoxville and romped to a 56-28 win over Tennessee in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score. In that game, Bobby Humphrey ran 27 times for 217 yards and three touchdowns. He averaged over 8 yards per carry.


Somewhat surprising is that Humphrey was used to return kickoffs in the game, even after it was essentially over (the score was 42-14 at halftime). Afterwards, Bama Coach Ray Perkins said he used Humphrey because kickoff returns were not high injury situations.


Even though to the average observer a kickoff looks perilous, Perkins got the benefit of the doubt. Now, though, football is taking a hard look  the safety issue of the kickoff, considering either change or even elimination.


Earlier this week Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reported that both the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) and the Football Oversight Committee of the NCAA have had some level of conversation about the kickoff. Although few statistics have been offered, conventional wisdom is, as Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby (chairman of that Oversight Committee) said, "I don't think there is any doubt it is the most dangerous play in the game."


At various levels of youth football, there is a move to eliminate the kickoff.


At the college level, there also have been suggestions on how to alter that segment of the game (and others are likely to surface).


Alabama fans, understandably, don’t have to look back very far to see that the kickoff can be quite exciting…and beneficial. Would the Crimson Tide have defeated Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game without the kickoff? Key plays in that game were the onside kick from Adam Griffith to Marlon Humphrey, followed immediately by a touchdown pass, and a 95-yard kickoff return by Kenyan Drake.


Traditionally, being on special teams – including kickoffs – has been the first opportunity for young players to earn playing time and gain college football experience.


Once upon a time the college football kickoff was made from the 40 yard line. It was moved back to the 30 to encourage more kickoff returns, and then in 2012 moved up to the 35 to provide more touchbacks (offset by a touchback giving the offense the ball at its 25 rather than the previous 20). Dodd reported Rogers Redding, secretary and rules editor of the NCAA Rules Committee, saying that touchbacks increased by 50 per cent when the kickoff line was moved to the 35.


Last year, Griffith kicked off 100 times with 55 of them touchbacks. He averaged kicking to the opponent 2-yard line. Opponents returned 41 kickoffs an average of 19 yards each.


Any change in the NCAA kickoff rule would likely not come before following the 2017 season, Dodd wrote.


What are the possibilities?


AFCA executive director Todd Berry told Dodd, “It looks like the data is skewed where we have more injuries on that play. If that’s the case, we have to look at eliminating the play, modifying the play, change blocking schemes.”


The most obvious is eliminating the kickoff. The team going on offense to start the game or second half or following a score would simply take the ball at some arbitrary spot, probably around its 25-yard line.


Football has adjusted with safety success to firm enforcement of targeting tackles, and perhaps could – as Berry suggested – make the kickoff safer with changes in blocking and/or tackling schemes.


The Ivy League, which is getting in front of the safety issue in college football (including eliminating tackling to the ground in practice this year), said that kickoff returns account for 23.4 per cent of concussions even though comprising only 5.8 per cent of total plays in a game. This year the Ivy League will experiment in conference games with kickoffs from the 40 and a touchback resulting in the receiving team starting at its 20-yard line.


Former Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano (who had a player suffer an injury on a kickoff that resulted in the player being paralyzed) suggested a team kicking off after a score would have two options. Instead of kicking off, the team would have the ball at its 30 with two choices. It could punt the ball. Or it could be a simulated fourth down and 15 yards to go and try to make a first down and retain possession. This would maintain something of the onside kick option.


Rodger Sherman of had a column that focused primarily on the NFL. While he favors elimination, he offered some possible alterations:

1. After every touchdown, the scoring team has the opportunity to go for it from 20 yards for the chance to retain possession. This would probably work around as often as onside kicks, and we'd get to see a regular football play decided by each team's offense and defense rather than the whims of a funny-shaped ball. If you miss, the opponent gets the ball from the spot.

2. We're eliminating kickers' jobs a bit here, so let's give them a break. Same idea, but with a 60-yard field goal with the ball spotted at midfield. No defense, just a kicker and a holder. I'm guessing that with kickoffs out of the game, teams will prioritize hyper-accurate kickers over strong-legged kickers, so there will be fewer kickers capable of hitting these. If you hit it, you keep the ball from midfield, if you miss, the opponent gets the ball at midfield. We can tweak it if kickers are making 60-yarders too frequently, but kickers generally don't make 60-yarders frequently.

And last but not least ...

3. Teams have the option to attempt onside kicks if they want to. Onside kicks don't have the same inherent dangers as regular kickoffs, so we could eliminate the dangerous type of kickoffs where teams sprint into each other at full speed while still allowing teams to attempt the play where everybody chases a bouncing ball. There would be a rule in place against kicking it deep, to prevent teams from abusing the rule to manipulate the loophole for field position.

Which brings us to:

What do you think?

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