Kickoff change is a big deal

Kickoffs were no big deal for the Tennessee Volunteers last fall. Often as not James Wilhoit would kick the ball into the end zone, the opponent would settle for a touchback and the officials would spot the ball at the 20-yard line.

Vol kickoffs will be different in 2007 ... dramatically different. For one thing, Wilhoit has exhausted his eligibility after four years as the No. 1 place-kicker. That's huge, considering that exactly half (37) of his 74 kickoffs were downed for touchbacks last fall.

There will be considerably more pressure on Tennessee's coverage unit in 2007 – partly due to the departure of Wilhoit and partly due to the arrival of a new NCAA rule forcing teams to kick off from their 30-yard line rather than their 35. As a result, kicks that were downed four yards deep in the end zone last fall will be fielded at the 1-yard line and returned this fall.

Thanks to heavy graduation losses, Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer already is looking for two new starters for his offensive line, a couple of big-play receivers, two new defensive tackles and three new secondary starters. The new kickoff rule gives him one more problem to try and resolve.

"That will affect the game considerably," he said. "Very few people are going to kick it into the end zone every time…. That's going to make some gray-headed special team's coaches, I can tell you."

The task of succeeding Wilhoit as Tennessee's kickoff man likely will fall to junior punter Britton Colquitt. A former soccer star at Knoxville's Bearden High School, he probably has as much leg strength as Wilhoit. Even so, kicking from the 30-yard line will make the job much tougher for Colquitt than it was for his predecessor.

"Britton right now would be our kickoff guy," Fulmer said recently. "He's very capable of doing that. But there will be a lot more returns and a lot better field position quite likely for the start of the offensive series."

Battling Colquitt for the kickoff duties is redshirt freshman Daniel Lincoln. After kicking off from the 30-yard line during spring practice, Lincoln concedes that the new rule is going to have considerable impact in 2007.

"That'll definitely play a big part in the return game – how we kick off and the kickoff coverage this year," he said. "We'll see what happens with that."

This much is certain: Kicking off from the 30-yard line will mean considerably more returns and considerably fewer touchbacks. Thus, teams with quality return men will benefit greatly from the new rule. When asked if he will place a higher priority on recruiting players with return skills, however, Fulmer shrugged.

"You kind of do that already, really," he said. "You look at ‘What can he do for us in the return game?' I think this (signing) class has a number of those guys. It'll be interesting to see how it all shakes out."

The other major rule revision for 2007 involves stopping the clock on changes of possession and NOT starting the clock on kickoffs until the ball is fielded. The 2006 clock rule – implemented to appease the TV networks – was designed to shave five to 10 minutes off the games. Instead, it eliminated late-game suspense by enabling teams to run out the clock without even snapping the ball.

The 2007 revision basically restores the pre-2006 clock rule.

"It's not back 100 percent to the way it was," Fulmer said, "but I think that's the right thing for the game. For people to play the last two minutes of the game and not have to run any plays to speak of is not a good thing."

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