Kickoff change is big deal

When college football moved kickoffs from the 40-yard line to the 35 runbacks increased and touchbacks decreased but the numbers weren't all that dramatic.

The rule moving kickoffs from the 35-yard line to the 30 in 2007, however, could be quite dramatic. The touchback might become a thing of the past, since few kickers have the leg strength to boom the ball deep into the end zone from 70 yards away.

"It's going to be one of the most significant rules changes to come about in recent years – maybe in a decade," Kentucky's Rich Brooks said during the recent SEC Media Days. "You're going to see offenses starting with a lot better field position. You're going to see scoring averages go up. You're going to see a lot more gimmicks (pooch kicks, squib kicks) on kickoff coverage."

Auburn's Tommy Tuberville agreed.

"Field position will drastically change," he said, noting that more drives will start "outside the 30-yard line than the 20-yard line" thanks to the new rule.

"Even if you have a great kickoff guy now," Tuberville added, "the ball is not going to go into the end zone every time."

Tuberville had "a great kickoff guy" in 2005 and 2006. Matt Clark's kicks resulted in so many touchbacks that Auburn rarely used first-teamers on its coverage unit.

"I'd say 90 percent of them were not returned," Tuberville recalled, "so we could put backup guys (on the coverage team)."

Now that Clark is out of eligibility and the new kickoff rule is in effect, the Auburn coach realizes 2007 will be different.

"Most of the returns are going to be there," he said, "so you've got to have better cover guys on the your coverage team. You also have to coach your kicker better. You're going to have to kick it right, left."

Clark's kicks resulted in so many touchbacks last fall that Tuberville said he and his staff spent "maybe five minutes a week" working on kickoff coverage in practice.

Obviously, five minutes a week won't cut it this year.

"Your guys are going to have to learn coverage lanes," Tuberville said. "There's going to be a lot more coaching to your kickoff teams."

While the new rule will make covering kicks significantly tougher, it will make returning kicks significantly easier. As a result, Tuberville's team will spend more time working on runback schemes, as well.

"Last year we probably had three returns in," he said. "Now you've got to have your front guys prepared to return kicks because there's going to be a lot of pooch kicks and squib kicks."

In anticipation of more pooch and squib kicks, Tuberville said he'll utilize more sure-handed receivers on his return unit. Teams that don't take this step, he added, risk "a lot of turnovers (because of) different guys catching the ball."

Kentucky's Keenan Burton had a 100-yard kickoff return last season and ranked 25th nationally with a 24.7-yard average. He should benefit from the new rule. Then again, maybe not.

"We've got some guys that can return 'em," Brooks noted. "But I think what we're going to see is more teams giving us pooch kicks and things ... change it up so you can't get the return going quite as well."

The NFL already moved its kickoffs from the 35-yard line to the 30, and the impact was less than earth-shaking. Brooks, who coached two years in the pro ranks, believes the impact will be much greater at the college level.

For one thing, he said NFL teams devote a lot more practice time to special teams. Also, pro rosters have just 46 athletes, "so you've got pretty good players covering kickoffs." Conversely, college rosters are twice that size, so many teams use "a lot of third-string guys and walk-ons."

If Brooks is correct, third-stringers and walk-ons won't be covering many kickoffs this season. He expects teams to respond to the new rule by "maybe putting more of your defensive starters on the kickoff team."

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