Kickoff Returns Different This Year

LITTLE ROCK — Reading the offensive guard is one thing; reading the laces on a football is another.

Just as the guard might tip off a play, the laces can be a clue about the intentions of the kickoff man. Desmond Sims, the man in the middle of the front row of Arkansas' return team, did that for the Razorbacks a year ago. A veteran, he could interpret the alignment of the kicker, particularly if the guy doing the booting was trying for a corner or something less than all-out. At Mississippi State last year, many on Arkansas' return team knew Adam Carlson was attempting high and short and they had their hand in the air as he approached the ball. It was more high than short and Darren McFadden returned the kick 92 yards for a 14-7 lead. More than ever, such awareness will be important for the Razorbacks in the fall. Following the lead of the NFL, the NCAA has moved the kickoff from the 35 to the 30. Those 15 feet might not sound like much but that change will mean an additional number of catch-and-run opportunities for the Razorbacks' Felix Jones if Arkansas opponents choose to boom the boot. More than likely, they will be innovative and try to avoid Jones, one of the premier kickoff returners in the country. "It will be a scarier issue with teams kicking the ball everywhere," said James Shibest, who is in charges of Arkansas' special teams. Jones was second in the nation in kickoff returns as a freshman and, in anticipation of a backlash, Arkansas last year set up returns for players only 40 yards or so from the kicker. "That's tougher because they're so much closer to you," Shibest said. Such kicks put a premium on up men who can catch and block. Ideally, the short return man would be running back Peyton Hillis. Jones was prolific again last fall with a total of 536 yards in returns, third behind his 543 in 2005 and DeCori Birmingham's 638 in 2002. With the kicker back another 5 yards, Shibest expects, "more directional kicking, people trying to pin you in corners, more squib kicking to try and mess up the returns." Already expected to touch the ball 25 times a game from scrimmage, McFadden's role in the kicking game could be reduced. If so, Michael Smith and London Crawford might join Jones. The thing is, Jones and McFadden are unselfish about blocking for each other. The fact that both are first-rate running backs makes their willingness to take a big-time collision for their partner particularly unusual. Since the up-front guys can't knock down everybody, it is often the running mate who delivers the block that enables a long return. Although Jones might have fewer chances because of the rule change, Arkansas could benefit with better field position. Starting a possession outside the 20 leads to more freedom in the play-calling and variety often means more production from the offense. Reviewing Arkansas' losses to LSU in the final game of the regular season and to Florida in the SEC championship game illustrates the importance of field position founded in kickoffs: • At 7-6, LSU kicked off into the end zone. Arkansas ran three plays and punted. • At 14-6, Arkansas started from its 24 and the possession ended with Casey Dick's touchdown pass to Marcus Monk. • At 17-12, Hezekiah Smith made a fair catch of the kickoff at the Arkansas 37 and the Razorbacks punted LSU into a hole. • At 31-19, Jones returned 62 yards to the LSU 37. Nine plays later, Arkansas scored. Against Florida: • At 3-0, Jones' 22-yard return to the 30 set up a drive that ended in a missed 40-yard field goal attempt. • At 17-0, Jones returned a kick 17 yards to the 34 and Dick threw 48 yards to Monk for a TD. • At 31-21, Jones returned 20 yards to the 37. Four plays later, Cedric Washington threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jones. • Ahead 38-28, Florida asked Joey Ijjas to aim for the corner. He missed out of bounds at the 10 and Arkansas took over at the 35. Although the possession ended with a McFadden interception, the point is field position. The threat of Jones, plus the new rule, should help in that all-important area. ---- Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media's Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is hking@arkansasnews.com.

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