For the past decade, the kickoff has been the target of NCAA reformers who want to make college football safer. Critics argue that the very nature of a play that involves 22 athletes running from opposite ends of the field to collide with each other, often at full speed, makes the risk not worth the occasional thrill fans get from seeing a kick taken 95 yards to the house at a critical moment in a big game.
“We don’t go out and practice kickoff full-speed live ever,” Kirby Smart said on Saturday. “It’s dangerous. You’ve got guys running 40 yards into each other. We don’t ever do that.”
So we’ve got teenagers doing a thing that’s too dangerous to practice for the very first time in front of tens of thousands of people? You could see why the NCAA might want to intervene.
Two years after Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed during a kickoff in 2010, the spot of the kickoff was moved from the 30-yard line to the 35 to increase the likelihood of touchbacks, and the spot of the ball following a touchback was moved from the 20 to the 25. For six years the kickoff rules remained untampered with but on Friday, the NCAA announced a rule change that will allow receiving teams to signal for a fair catch inside the 25 yard line and have it result in a touchback.
From a pure gameplay perspective, the change creates a new set of problems for special teams coordinators. Kickoff returners have spent their entire lives deciding whether to kneel when they catch the ball in the endzone — but on the 15-yard line?
“Trying to make a returner gauge whether that football is worth downing or returning has got to be extremely difficult,” Kipp Adams of Dawgs247 said Monday on The Morning Blitz. “When that ball doesn’t make it to the end zone, I think we’re going to see some pretty interesting things happen. I don’t know if it’s going to be better for the sport or not, but it will be pretty entertaining.”
But will the new rule achieve its intended result of improving player safety?
“We’re still going to have those issues as far as safety is concerned,” Adams said. “Most of the contact [that takes place during a kickoff return] is going to happen by the time the kick returner makes a decision about whether to make a fair catch.
“I think kickoffs are eventually just going to be removed from the game. I think we need to go ahead and start taking steps and evaluating how we’re going to have football without kickoffs. Those initial rule changes, their hope was to minimize injuries, but it really hasn’t had that effect because these guys are still running full contact into each other.”
You can listen to the entirety of Adams’ conversation with The Morning Blitz by using the media player at the top of this post. You can also download this episode and subscribe to The Morning Blitz on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever else you listen to podcasts. New episodes of The Morning Blitz come out every weekday morning before the sun comes up, featuring interviews with reporters covering the biggest college football stories of the day, delivered in a concise, 10-15 minute package.