KO change to boost scoring?

Moving the kickoff back five yards is the most significant change in college football in the last 15 to 20 years.

That's the opinion of Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.

The special teams change will make a difference in field position, return yards, scoring and strategy. Do you defer or take the ball on the opening kickoff?

Purdue coach Joe Tiller doesn't like the change because he said more injuries occur on kickoff returns than any other play and by moving the ball back 5 yards, you'll have more kick returns.

``I think that's true,'' Fulmer said. ``I think you'll get a bunch of big, fast athletes running in the open field with some major league collisions.''

Was Fulmer opposed to the change?

``I don't think anybody asked anybody,'' Fulmer said. ``It was one of those things that came out of the Rules Committee as a clock issue, trying to shorten the game.''

How will Tennessee adapt to the longer kickoff? The kick coverage was solid last year, ranking second in the SEC. But the kick-return game stunk. The Vols averaged 16.1 yards per runback, 118th out of 119 teams in the nation. Fourteen different guys fielded a kickoff. LaMarcus Coker, the team's best running back last year, was injured returning a kick.

Fulmer said improvement in the return game starts with the returner.

``You get a great athlete in the open field with blockers in front of him,'' Fulmer said, ``some good things should happen for you.''

Coker was UT's best kick returner last year, averaging 20 yards on nine runbacks with a long of 40 yards. Fulmer said he has no reservations about using Coker again to return kicks, despite the injury.

``Just like an offensive play, the kick return is a very important play,'' Fulmer said. ``I'm looking for another guy like LaMarcus, someone who has some dynamics with their hands on the ball that can make people miss or change an angle that gives you a chance to start in great field position.''

Coker said it's a job he loves.

``That's one of my favorite parts of the game,'' Coker said.

Kenny O'Neal, a junior college transfer who ran back kicks as a true freshman at Florida State two years ago, would love a chance.

``They'll give me a shot,'' O'Neal said. ``I'm pretty sure they will. If they don't, I'll talk to Coach about it.''

Asked if he knew UT averaged just 16 yards pre kick return last year, O'Neal, chomping at the bit, said: ``Yes, I've seen it. I've seen it. I've seen it.''

Field position is critical, said David Cutcliffe, UT offensive coordinator.

Cutcliffe has studied scoring based on field position for years. If you start a drive on your own 35 as opposed to your 20, chances of scoring are at least 20 percent greater. And if you start on your 35 and make one first down, you can back up an opponent with a punt.

``I think you'll see more scoring,'' Cutcliffe said of the new rule's affect. ``It's a proven fact – it's easier to score (with better field position).''

It's also tougher to score when you suffer a penalty on a kick return and start from your own 10.

``That's the one thing about kickoff returns that irritates me the most,'' Cutcliffe said. ``If someone blocks in the back on a kickoff return, he ought to have to go jump in the river. That's how bad a penalty it is.''

Cutcliffe's goal is for the average field position to start beyond the 30 on kick returns. That might be a huge task for a team that has been close to inept in returning kicks in recent years. Whether it was poor running, poor blocking, poor decision-making or a penalty, UT has struggled at times to advance a kickoff past the 20.

Two years ago, a UT coach told me he prayed for the other team to get a touchback so the Vols could at least get the ball at the 20.

With the new kick rule, deferring to the second half on the opening coin toss is no longer automatic.

``The idea behind deferring was two-fold,'' Cutcliffe said. ``It was to provide field position to start the game, believing your defense could make them go three-and-out, and, secondly, to get the ball first in the second half.''

Cutcliffe has always liked getting the ball to start the second half.

``Say we go down and score before halftime and we get the ball to start the second half, we have a chance to have two possessions and 14 points,'' Cutcliffe said. ``I can tell you, we've done that a number of times. You can have such an impact on the game.''

Does that impact supersede the possibility of falling behind early because the other team had a long kick return?

Cutcliffe isn't sure.

``I'm still struggling with this,'' he said.

Cutcliffe said deferring could change from game to game, depending on the weather and the opponent.

``I don't want to kick off to a team averaging 31 yards a return,'' Cutcliffe said.

Cutcliffe did admit he could be worrying too much because kickers might just boot the ball into the end zone more often than not.

``Every time they challenge kickers, they just get better,'' he said. ``We narrow the goal posts, they still kick the same percentage. We move the goal posts back 10 yards, they're still just as good. We move the ball from the 40 to the 35 on kickoffs and move the tee down an inch, they still kick it in the end zone.''

But just in case kickers don't adjust quickly, Cutcliffe wants a plan.

And that plan is to score more with better field position.

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