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February 27, 2012
Even when trying to do something positive, the NCAA always seems to find a way to botch things.
Latest example: a series of football rules changes announced late last week that are mostly related to kickoffs and loss of helmet during a play.
Specifically, the NCAA: 1) moved the kickoff up five yards to the 35-yard line; 2) required players on the kicking coverage team could be no further than five yards back from the 35 at the time of the kick; 3) gave the ball to the offense at the 25-yard line on a touchback; and 4) mandated that players losing their helmets during a play must discontinue involvement in the play and go to the sidelines to sit out at least one play.
The NCAA claims the rule changes are intended to enhance player safety. However, I believe these modifications will have unintended consequences.
First, if the NCAA truly sought to boost player safety, they should have simply moved the kickoff to the 35-yard line and left it there. The NFL moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line prior to last season and experienced a significant swell in the number of touchbacks.
Instead, in a foolish attempt to distinguish college football from the NFL, the NCAA decided to give the offense five additional yards on a kickoff when the ball is downed in the end zone (Note: touchbacks on punt will remain at the 20-yard line; thus, the new rule applies only to kickoffs).
Here's the problem: at the major college level, especially in the SEC, coaches will undoubtedly refuse to concede the ball at the 25. Every yard is hard-fought in the SEC, and giving an opponent five extra yards without penalty is inconceivable for most coaches already facing intense pressure from fans and the media.
In my opinion, many major college coaches will put their fastest players on kickoff coverage (that's a way to negate the new rule that the players on the kickoff team can't line up inside the 30, limiting running starts) and instruct the place kicker to directionally boot the ball with a high trajectory towards the sidelines inside the 5-yard line and then order their speedy cover guys to go make a play and pin the return team inside the 20.
The NFL was smart. They moved kickoffs up five yards and kept touchbacks at the 20. As a result, pro teams have far greater incentive to kick the ball into the end zone than college teams.
The result? Even more kickoff returns (i.e., more high-speed collisions) in college football over last season and less emphasis on player safety.
Additionally, just like in the NFL last season, we'll see more dynamic kick returners try to run the ball back even if it's kicked several yards into the end zone.
The official NCAA story on the rules change related to kickoffs stated putting the ball at the 25 "has to please everyone." Except, of course, the special teams and defensive coaches on the team giving up the extra five yards.
In short, coaches will force the return team to earn those five additional yards, decreasing the chances we'll actually see a greater percentage of touchbacks in 2012. Less injuries? Not likely.
Once again, the NCAA displays a high degree of naivet?hen it comes to understanding how major college teams go about playing football.
But even more absurd than the new rules concerning kickoffs in the NCAA's response to a common problem in college football - helmets popping off during a play.
I agree that helmets being jarred loose during live action is something we've seen too often in games. As I recall, Marcus Lattimore has had his helmet knocked off on several occasions.
Hopefully, one benefit of this new rule is that teams and players will find ways to better secure their helmets as a way to avoid the new rule's serious consequences.
Under the new rule, a player has to sit out one play if he loses his helmet for any reason other than a penalty (facemask, etc.).
Moreover, any player losing his helmet during live action must stop playing.
Good luck with that one. The top 18-to-22 year old athletes in the country won't stop because it goes 180 degrees against their instincts and what they're been taught by their coaches for their entire football lines.
Unfortunately, the new rules gives defensive coaches an incentive to teach their players to try to knock a ball carrier's helmet off as a way to force him off the field for at least one play.
I assure you this will happen to Lattimore on multiple occasions in 2012: he takes a handoff and instead of going for the tackle, an opposing defensive player will go for his head hoping to jar the helmet loose.
As a result, the chances for injury could actually go up as a result of this new 'helmet' rule.
Also, what could a defensive player do when a player with the ball is running down the field? That's right, try to knock his helmet off as a way to force the ball carrier to stop playing (and halting their gain) and the officials to blow their whistles.
Rather than implementing ill-advised rules that could lead to more injuries, the NCAA should spend its time trying to figure out why helmets are popping off and developing safer, sturdier helmets with better straps to keep them on the players' heads.
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