More Returns On Deck For College Football

When gathered in Chicago to meet with the media, Big Ten coaches agreed fans will see a noticeable change with kickoffs moved back to the 30-yard line. Most were fine with the alteration, though there was one notable exception.

Though a paltry number of kickoffs in the kick scrimmage Wednesday afternoon in Ohio Stadium did not betray such a reality, Big Ten coaches previously indicated big changes could be on the way with the moving of the kickoff from the 35- to the 30-yard line.

At the Big Ten media kickoff in Chicago in July, Illinois head coach Ron Zook said the new kickoff rules would bring about a dramatic change.

Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald used the same adjective and said he expects to see more variety on kickoffs, such as squibs and angle kicks. He also looks for the swirling winds of November to make the proceedings even more interesting.

With 42 touchbacks on 76 kickoffs last season, Wisconsin led the Big Ten in touchback percentage, but Badgers coach Bret Bielema – who might have had his own role in getting the clock rules tweaked by famously instructing his team to go offside intentionally several times in the final seconds of the first half of his team's game against Penn State last season – said research by his coaching staff indicated 67 percent of his team's touchbacks in 2006 would have been returned under the new rule.

To further illuminate the potential change, he cited NFL research that found a drastic difference in how often the team receiving the opening kickoff in one of the league's sudden-death overtime contests after the NFL moved its kickoffs from the 35 to the 30.

Prior to the move, the receiving team won the game at nearly the same rate as the kicking team. After the change, the winning percentage of the receiving team jumped above 70 percent.

"So that's a huge change right there and a little bit of an indication of how much it's going to affect the game," Bielema said.

The inference was that offenses enjoy a great advantage with fewer touchbacks, perhaps an unanticipated consequence of a rule change intended to add more exciting plays and quicken game by lessening the time needed to spot the ball after a touchback.

"I believe when they changed that rule, it had a bigger impact on the game then they had thought," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "Not only will there not be as many kicks into the end zone and you will have to run five more yards to cover. I think you will be able to see the ball coming out quicker and more effectively.

"I'm a little bit of a defensive coach so I wasn't really in favor of the change," Dantonio added. "But yeah I think you will need to have great speed and it also makes it more critical for teams to have a kicker who can put it in the end zone." Dantonio's former mentor at Ohio State, Jim Tressel, pointed out yet another perhaps unforeseen foible.

He is of course famous for his ability to develop outstanding kickers, and his team has kicked touchbacks at a rate of 60 percent the last three seasons. Given how many of those touchbacks went out of the back of the end zone, his team would not seem to have much to worry about.

"But then all of a sudden you move it to the 30 and the guy thinks you have to hit it farther," Tressel said. "It seems like this spring practice, we had less balls hit to the goal line than in the past. So, I don't know, it's going to be interesting to see our kickers evolve to that."

At the aforementioned Ohio State kick scrimmage, the man who handled most of the kickoff duties last season for Tressel – Aaron Pettrey – hit one of his three kickoffs into the end zone, another to the goal line and a third to the 2.

He acknowledged Tressel's observation.

"In the spring, me and Ryan (Pretorius) both struggled with that," Pettrey said. "Right now we're both putting it on the goal line to 3 or 4 deep right now. I don't mind it."

Last season, Pettrey recorded a touchback on 58 percent of his kickoffs while Pretorius, then his backup as both the place kicker and kickoff specialist, had just three touchbacks on 19 tries.

Back in Chicago, there seemed to be a general consensus that more excitement would be infused into games with the Big Ten being littered with athletic playmakers afforded more chances to get the ball in their hands.

Only Purdue coach Joe Tiller came out forcefully against the new kick rules.

"I'm a contrarian, I guess, to a degree, in a sense that I'm old enough that I don't have to agree with everything that goes on in the game," said the 64-year-old coach who was part of a health and safety committee a few years ago.

"College football wanted to really take a look at training practices and dealing with heat and really looking at having the best interests of the student athlete," he said. "That was pounded home again and again and again and again about the best interests of the student athlete.

"And then the NFL, I think many of the things college football does, it does because they want to stay in favor with the NFL," he said, citing changes involving the hash marks, goalposts and kickoff tees in the past.

"Now the kickoff is moved back, the claim is that it will speed up the game. The reason I bring that up is because having spent time on that health and safeties committee, the most violent play in all of football is the kickoff," he said, raising his voice an decibel or two. "So now we're moving back five yards so that we can create more G-forces as these kids are running into each other. So I'm not in favor of moving back five yards. Not because I'm opposed to excitement in the game, etc., but I think about the health and safety of the players, first and foremost.

"So, what's it going to do? It's probably going to have a few more injuries that we didn't have in the past, and maybe a few more kicks will be returned."

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