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NCAA kickoff rule proposal may drive one more nail in the coffin corner

A proposed NCAA rule change could radically change special teams.



Note: The proposed rule was passed on April 13, 2018. The original post appears below.

The NCAA Football Rules Committee has proposal a rule that is the next step into eliminating almost all kickoff returns.

The change would allow for a receiving team to fair catch a kickoff inside the 25-yard line and be awarded with a touchback, even if the catch is in the field of play. College and pro rules committees have been concerned about kickoffs causing head and neck injuries for several years, with the focus of expanding touchback incentives to limit the number of returns.

If enacted, this rule would end the kicking team strategy of kicking the ball to the 5-yard line and hoping good coverage pins the receivers inside the 25-yard line. The NFL and NCAA moved the kickoff touchback line to the 25, and a fair-catch touchback would reduce the effectiveness of the “mortar kick” strategy — avoiding the extended touchback by kicking just short of the goal line.

The NFL has temporarily placed the kickoff touchback line at the 25 for the last 2 seasons, and made that permanent this year.

According to a news release, Larry Fedora, North Carolina Head Coach chair of the rule committee said, “The committee discussed the kickoff play at great length and we will continue to work to find ways to improve the play. We believe making one change will allow us to study the effect of this change in terms of player safety.”

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel will vote whether or not to pass the rule on April 13. The NFL Competition Committee routinely collaborates with the college panel, so there is a likelihood that the NFL is considering a similar change or at least will evaluate the rule in practice added to the college rulebook.

This proposal would not end squib kicks or onside kicks. Squib kicks take a longer time to field, preventing the receiving team from building up a full head of steam and causing violent collisions. Also, the receiving team cannot be awarded a fair catch when the kick has touched the ground (unless interference is involved).

So, if I were a head coach, unless I have the second coming of Devin Hester on my team, I tell my receiving team to fair catch every airborne kickoff every time and call it good.

Kickoffs are an exciting part of our game. I don’t think we will ever see kickoffs go away totally, because onside kicks are a vital part of team strategy. But look for college and pro rules committees to continue to legislate out run-of-the-mill kickoffs that have been part of the game for over 100 years.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"