Game of Inches

Everyone says football is a game of inches, but there's one inch you might not notice this year unless you're a placekicker, or the guy who runs onto the field to pick up the tee after a kick (and perhaps an official). Nevertheless, the reduction of the height of the kickoff tee from two inches to one inch could have a subtle but important impact on the game in 2006.

The rule was voted in during the off-season to reduce the number of touchbacks in college football. Fewer touchbacks allow for more time to run off the clock during returns and in between ceaseless network television commercials, and conceivably shorten the game by a few highly coveted seconds.

If the early indications from Alabama's placekicker Jamie Christensen is any indication, it might make for more exciting kick returns as well.

"It really doesn't affect my distance," Christensen said this week while charting practice kickoffs using the new one-inch tee at the Alabama football complex, "but my hang time is not as good."

Christensen is hoping the change from a two-inch to a one-inch tee won't harm his kickoff numbers. Last year the sophomore was best remembered for three game-winning field goals, but his effective kickoffs all season probably helped secure just as many wins. Christensen kicked off 50 times last year, averaging 59.6 yards per kick (meaning on average the ball went to the five yard line). He had 14 touchbacks and just two kicks that went out of bounds.

("I've had two kicks out of bounds in the each of the past two years," Christensen said. "That's something I have to improve on.")

But the hidden yardage is in the hang time. The longer the ball is in the air, of course, the more time the coverage men have to speed down field, shed blockers and pursue the return man.

Alabama was an excellent coverage team in 2005 thanks in large part to effective kicks. Alabama ranked 28th in the nation in kickoff coverage, allowing18.61 yards per kick return. In the Southeastern Conference, only Mississippi (4th, 16.47 yards per return) and LSU (16th, 17.67 yards per return) were better in coverage.

For reference, Iowa was the leading kickoff coverage team, allowing an astounding 14.88 yards per return.

The longest kick return given up by Alabama in 2005 was against Tennessee. Christensen kicked off to the five-yard line and UT's Lucas Taylor took the return 41 yards before he was chased out of bounds by Matt Miller.

Last year marked a slight improvement from the previous year, when the Tide was ranked 36th nationally, allowing 19.19 yards per return, but a huge jump from the year prior to Christensen taking most of the kickoffs (Alabama was 81st in kick coverage in 2003, yielding a 21.61 yard average return.)

If the new tee yields less hang time on most kickoffs, it should mean that return yardage will go up for all teams, making coverage more difficult and more valuable at the same time.

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