Just 5 yards. . .

Opposing teams are averaging kickoff eturns to the 38 on the Rebels since the rule was changed to kickoff from the 30. The national average is the 37 this season. Who would have thought just five yards would make such a difference?

Five yards.

Five measley yards.

When the NCAA Rules Committee changed kickoffs from the 35 yardline to the 30 for the 2007 season, who would have thought so many teams would struggle as much as they have?

Or that the seemingly minor adjustment would draw comments from coaches like Ole Miss' Ed Orgeron evaluated recently.

"We've been horrible (in kickoff coverage)," he said bluntly.

The new rule has coaches all over the country shaking their heads and has sent them all scurrying to the drawing board trying to figure out what to try next.

"You take pride in everything you do and you have real good success your entire career in that area and then. . . . ," Rebel Special Teams Coordinator Chris Rippon's voice trailed away, "it's very challenging. In the long run, it will make you better because you have to re-evaluate everything you have done in the past, and maybe taken for granted. It's a very unique challenge individually for me, but it's also frustrating because you want to do right by the team and you are not accomplishing that.

"You look for every little thing you can do to correct it - personnel, scheme, rebuilding the fundamentals, whatever you can come up with that might turn this thing. That's where we are, rebuilding fundamentals and trying to get the kids' confidence back that they can do it. The 37 is the average start of drives this year throughout the country. Our opponents are averaging the 38, so we aren't the only team struggling with the new distance. Hopefully we are the first team to correct the situation."

Rip said the Rebels have been spoiled in the past by having Will Moseley as the kickoff man.

"It would have been nice to have had Will for one year during this transition from the 35 to the 30," he said, "but that's not the case. Not many people in the country have someone kicking it into the end zone from the 30, so there have been adjustments for everyone to make.

"We have to do a better job of kicking the ball to spots with a higher trajectory. Our placement has to be better. We also have to do a better job of tackling as a team. If you look at Vandy and Florida, we didn't tackle well as a defense or on kickoff coverage. It's something I can't wait to fix - hopefully it's this week."

For Rippon, it's a double-edge sword.

"Against Florida on the opening kickoff, my stomach dropped instantly. A Gator blocker took out one of our lane guys with an illegal block and it busted the return. I never complain about non-calls because you just aren't going to get those calls in a mass of humanity," he continued, "but then, since I coach the secondary, I feel like I'm poking myself in the eye. Who is the jerk that gave them the ball at midfield? Not a good way to start the game, obviously.

"We got a little better as the game progressed and a couple of squib kicks worked OK, but we have to improve a lot starting now."

Rippon said he did not anticipate the additional five yards being that much harder to cover, but he should have.

"I was excited for our return team possibilities, so it stands to reason I should have been worried about the coverage game, but I did a lot of research with some NFL coaches who are friends of mine during the summer and thought we could benefit in the return game and hold back the tide in the coverage game," he explained. "I knew there would be a change, but I didn't think it would be this dramatic, for us in particular.

"The rule netted what the rules makers wanted, I guess. People want more offense and that's what they are getting."

Chris has experiemented with personnel, but injury has also hurt that unit.

"Two of my best guys - Jonathan Cornell and Ashlee Palmer - are banged up and aren't on kickoff coverage right now. They are impact players on that unit, but we can't make excuses - we have to fix it, period," he stated. "That's my job and my responsibility. I have to find the right combinations of cover guys, keep working with the kickers nd keep tweaking the strategy until we get it right."

What does Rippon look for in an ideal coverage guy? Here's the criteria.

"The first thing you look for is a guy with the flare to make a play, number one. Then you look for the physical attributes of speed and good enough size to get off a block," he assessed. "But making a play is the biggest factor."

Due to a lack of production on the team, Rippon has seen the unit's aggressiveness wane.

"We have played a little tentative due to our lack of success. We have played to not make a mistake as opposed to making a play. It's kind of like playing not to lose instead of playing to win. They want to do well so badly, but they don't want to mess up," he added. "We have to get our aggressiveness back and quit holding back. That's on me to get them to play more aggressively."

Ideally, Rippon would like to be able to - number one - get the ball kicked deeper. If not, he'd like to continue mixing in the squib kicks, but those are risky as well.

"I think now that Josh (Shene) is healthy he will start getting more distance and height on his kicks," said Rippon. "If not, the squib kick will work, but it has to be just right. If you kick it too hard and it gets back there in 1.7 seconds, you may as well kick it off normally. If you kick it too shallow, they pick it up on the 40 and are at the 50 before you can get there. You have to squib it just right and to a certain area."

Even though the Rebel kickoff coverage team has not done a good job, Rippon remains confident.

"I have never faced a kickoff situation when I wasn't convinced we were going to make the perfect hit - helmet on ball, the ball was going to pop in the air and we were going to catch it and score," he smiled. "That's just me. It's never happened yet in my long career as a special teams coach, but I think that on every kickoff, and always will. I won't change that positive mindset."

On a brighter note, Shene did a pretty good job in field goals against Florida and seems to be back on track now.

"He was 3-4 and probably tried to aim the long one a little too much instead of just kicking it. It came up short," Rip stated. "Now that his groin is healed, I think he's going to do fine.

"Josh is a self-taught kicker. He and I sit down and evaluate each kick and he can tell you excatly what he did right or wrong. He fixes himself because he knows himself that well. He found a few little things he wasn't doing correctly and got it fixed. I think he's fine now. He's a mature kid who will get it right."

Rippon said the Rebels will get the kickoff coverage "deal" corrected.

"As we all know, it's a short step from the penthouse to the outhouse. It's a short step back too," he closed. "We'll take that step, I'm convinced."

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