The NCAA Football Rules Committee proposed a number of rule changes today, one of which could have a major impact on special teams. Per a press release from the NCAA, the basic outline of the proposal follows below:
Kickoff and Touchback Starting Lines Moved. The committee voted to move the kickoff to the 35-yard line (currently set at the 30-yard line), and to require that kicking team players must be no further than five yards from the 35 at the kick, which is intended to limit the running start kicking teams have during the play. The committee also voted to move the touchback distance on free kicks to the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line to encourage more touchbacks. NCAA data indicates injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game.
This proposal is ultimately a safety measure more than anything else. Kickoff returns are widely considered the single most dangerous play in all of football, and by having more of these plays result in uncontested touchbacks than trainwreck type collisions between twenty-two players, the idea is that the game will be safer for all involved. Moving the kickoff line up will result in more touchbacks, and moving the ball further down the field following a touchback will give return units a greater incentive to kneel on the ball in the end zone instead of bringing it out, so the thinking here is that the rule changes on both ends will work to limit the overall number of returns.
Many have jumped off the deep end since the news of this broke, with some claiming it would end special teams as we know it. That may be a bit of hyperbole -- placekicking and punting remain the same, and returns and out-of-bounds kicks would occur, even if less frequently -- though admittedly it would be a big change. This isn't exactly Greg Schiano's suggestion of eliminating kickoffs entirely, but it does move the rules in that direction.
Safety issues notwithstanding, for Alabama this would be a welcomed change. 'Bama has fared well enough on kickoff returns, but kickoff return defense has often featured breakdown after breakdown and lack of distance in kickoffs has been a major problem for many years now and on net 'Bama would gain with just about any rule change that reduces the importance of special teams. Raw improvement would be nice, but for the time being I'll take Bill Polian's old strategy: Why worry about getting better when you can just get the rules changed instead?
Having said that, though, don't take this one as a panacea just yet. Last year Cade Foster kicked off 81 times and only recorded five touchbacks with an average kickoff length of just 63.3 yards. In other words, barring improvement from Foster or a much better showing by Adam Griffith, 'Bama will still find touchbacks few and far between next season and will still be forced to effectively cover kicks on a consistent basis.
In any event, all rule change proposals must still be approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, and member schools will be able to comment on the proposals before any of the changes are put in effect.