That's about to change.
"I don't know what other coaches
are going to do, but I'm taking it,"
With kickoffs coming from the 30 instead of the 35-yard line this season, you'd better believe things could be a lot more exciting on kickoffs this season.
"It's going to be one of the most
significant rule changes to come about in recent years, maybe in a decade,"
"You're gonna see scoring averages go up because of the rules change. You're gonna see a lot more gimmicks on kickoff coverage."
In 2006, only 3.1 kickoffs per team were returned, the lowest total since 1985. That just happens to be the year kickoffs were moved from the 40 to the 35.
Since 2000, the percentage of
returns hasn't risen above 80 percent. Coaches now expect at least 90 percent of
all kickoffs to be returned. According to
"You might think if you move the
ball back five (yards), you're only going to get five more yards of return,"
It's no wonder more SEC teams are already placing additional emphasis on their kickoff coverage in practices and meetings. Between research, planning and actual live practice time, the simple kickoff has become a complicated proposition over the past few months.
"We kind of charted where that
kick's going to land. That kick's going to land about the 9-yard-line now.
That's significant. That's when you start talking about the field position,
opportunity to score, percentages to score, things that most teams take very
seriously, it's going to have a major impact on,"
Four significant changes are
already taking place – long before LSU and
First, SEC coaches are suddenly placing more value on kickoff specialists. Instead of just looking for a fast guy who can make good decisions and hold on to the ball, coaches are looking for someone who can do all those things and add an element of danger.
All of a sudden,
Second, the importance of outstanding personnel won't be isolated among the returners.
"I think you might see better personnel on kickoffs," Meyer said. "You might see more starters."
Even recruiting decisions become
more importance because teams may place more emphasis on defensive backs and
linebackers – players who can fly down the field and either hit or block. During
Third, kickoff specialists become
even more important.
"We had a great kickoff guy (Matt Clark) last year," Tuberville said. "We generally lined up on the left hash marks, kicked the ball right down the left side, and it was easy. We worked on it maybe five minutes a week."
"You have to have a horse to kick that thing out of the end zone now," Meyer said.
Fourth, look for strategy to take on a more significant role on kickoffs. In addition to accepting the opening kickoff, coaches will place a lot more emphasis on kick placement, coverage and return teams. Instead of trying to kick the ball deep teams could choose to go with more pooch kicks and line drives in an attempt to throw return teams off balance.
"You're going to have to put a lot more returns in," Tuberville said. "Last year we had probably three returns for the entire year.
"Now you've got to have your front guys prepared to return kicks because there's going to be a lot of pooch kicks down to around the 20, high kicks where you try to get them to fair catch. ... There's going to be squib kicks, things like that. Field position will drastically change."
Last year's rule to lower the tee will also have a bigger impact this season. It forced more line drive kicks, which wasn't a big deal if a team had a kicker capable of kicking a line drive deep into the end zone. This year, those same line drives could fall short of the goal line and lead to some big returns.
"If you kick a low line drive, even if it makes it to the end zone, there's no hang time and you're at risk of a big return," Richt said. "I think people will be more apt to get air under the ball, try to put it in a spot where you know your people can cover, and try to tackle."
There's a fifth possibility hovering on the horizon: more injuries. The kickoff return was already the most violent play in the game with linebackers and defensive backs lining up at the 35-yard line and hurtling themselves downfield toward blockers and returners with reckless abandon. Now give them another 5-yard starts and the resulting violence could contribute to a few more injuries.
And if teams are using more starters on kickoffs, the consequences of those injuries could be even more significant.
Moving the kickoff back to the 30-yard line could become the football equivalent of basketball's 3-point line. Of course, SEC coaches tend to be pretty conservative for the most part, so all of the attention on kickoffs, coverage and returns could be overblown. With all the time between seasons and nothing to do but speculate about the possibilities of what could and might happen this season, the change could out to be more hype than impact.
"It's only five yards," Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron said. "I'm going to challenge our kickoff team to just run a little bit faster."
Then again ...
"The kickoff rule, I think, will
impact our game as much as any rule has since I've been in the league,"
"You're going to have people starting in better field position. Statistics are going to be influenced because there's going to be more scoring, maybe, than ever. There's going to be a lot more strategies involved in the kicks and the returns than ever before."
Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist for Tiger Rag. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.