SCOTT: Teams stress kickoffs as rules change

Over the course of time many SEC head coaches have made a habit of deferring to the second half when their team won the opening coin toss.

That's about to change.

 

"I don't know what other coaches are going to do, but I'm taking it," Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said. "Everybody has his choice. With the (kickoff) on the 30-yard line, you better believe 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," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "Very few teams will have a guy who can kick it into the touchback area or out of the end zone.

 

"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 Florida coach Urban Meyer the average kick will now land at about the 9. Because Florida allowed 19.4 yards on kickoff returns last season, Florida's opponents would start start their drives – on average – at the 28.4 yard line. That same research by the Florida staff also suggests that the odds of scoring would rise from 9.8 percent (between the 21 to 30 yard line) to 30 percent (31-40).

 

"You might think if you move the ball back five (yards), you're only going to get five more yards of return," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "But my guess is it will be more like 10 or 15 yards of field position because that kickoff return is going to create a lot more space."

 

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," Florida coach Urban Meyer said. "That's going to have a major impact. I know we're spending a lot of time on that. Myself, I'm spending a lot of time on it. I'm also evaluating how we defer, take the ball, whatever we do to maintain the plan to win, which we obviously take very seriously."

 

Four significant changes are already taking place – long before LSU and Mississippi State open the SEC season on Thursday night in

 

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, Arkansas' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, LSU's Trindon Holliday and Early Doucet, Auburn's Tristan Davis, Kentucky's Keenan Burton, Mississippi State's Derek Pegues, Ole Miss' Marshay Green and Alabama's Javier Arenas just became a lot more valuable because of their kickoff return potential. At the same time, losing Davis for 4-6 weeks with a broken bone in his foot could be a big blow for Auburn considering the fact that he led the SEC with 27 yards per return in 2006.

 

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 spring practice, Mississippi State defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson lamented his team's lack of numbers at linebacker, not just because of the limited depth on kickoffs but the absence of big, fast, violent players on kickoffs.

 

Third, kickoff specialists become even more important. Auburn has been among the SEC's most successful programs in the kickoff game in recent seasons and part of that has been effective specialists. Last year Auburn led the SEC with 51 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs last season. The kickoff specialist responsible for most of those touchbacks, Matt Clark, has completed his eligibility. That loss becomes even more dangerous considering the fact that Auburn's first opponent, Kansas State, led the nation with 27.14 yards per return in 2006.

 

"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."

 

Auburn isn't the only team concerned about finding a kicker who can put the ball in the end zone now.

 

"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," Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said. "When you start kicking that thing off to great players in this league, in an open field with blockers in front of them, there's a lot of (stuff) gonna happen that a coach can't control.

 

"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."

 

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Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist for Tiger Rag. Reach him at rscottsec@yahoo.com.


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