Kickoff rule could bring big return

The Baltimore Sun

Coaches around the country are on record as being worried about the NCAA's new football rule change that will see teams kicking off from the 30-yard line instead of the 35.

But a number of local coaches only see opportunity knocking.

"I'm on the rules committee," Towson coach Gordy Combs said. "The discussion about this change wasn't a long discussion. ... Personally, I guess I am excited about it because we have a good kickoff guy and a good return guy. Mark [Bencivengo, redshirt junior kicker] is still getting the ball in the end zone."

Last March the NCAA rules oversight panel discussed moving the kickoff to the 30-yard line as one of several offseason changes intended to speed up the game and add excitement for the fans.

A kickoff return will keep the clock running, and the fans will have more to cheer about.

On the field, few coaches care much about either aspect.

"The bottom line is winning," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "The only way it's exciting for us is if we do a great job. Fans have to take care of themselves and find their own excitement."

Green, however, thinks the rule change will bring a major change in outlook to the kicking game.

"Nationwide, there were a lot of guys kicking the ball into the end zone last year," Green said. "But if you study those kicks, a lot of them that weren't returned were just a yard or two into the end zone. Now, a 5-yard difference on the kickoff is going to make a lot of difference. Now they're going to be caught and returned."

And instead of teams taking a touchback and starting at the 20-yard line, they could be 5, 10 or 15 yards farther up the field.

At Maryland, coach Ralph Friedgen certainly hopes so, as he pictures opportunities for good field position on the game's first possession.

"I think there are [coaches] just starting to realize what that rule is all about," he said. "We're getting calls from coaches, 'What are you going to do?' They're just thinking about it now? We've been thinking about it since last spring. Weather conditions are going to have to be so [bad] that I'm going to defer.

"I don't think I'm going to defer if I'm going to get the ball and get good field position. You can establish field position in the first quarter and it could be a big factor in the game."

Friedgen said traditionally coaches like to play defense first, because if the defense holds the offense will get good field position. But now, Friedgen said, a coach might not have to wait.

"When we were really good on offense, I never liked to defer," he said. "Give me the ball and let's go. Ray [Rychleski, special teams coordinator] always likes to defer. Ray gets nervous. Usually we have a 50-second discussion. 'I think I want the ball today.' 'No, no defer. Get it in the second half.' "

Now Friedgen will have a bargaining chip, an extra 5-yard advantage. The discussion could get a whole lot shorter.

Navy coach Paul Johnson said that while he might have left the kickoff at the 35, he isn't worried about the change.

"There's going to be a far bigger premium placed on kick placement, coverage and return teams," he said. "But we've had a lot of emphasis on our kicking game for a long time prior to this year. Matt Harmon kicks well. He did a good job last year and knock on wood he will continue to. And Reggie [Campbell] is capable of making good returns."

Campbell, in fact, is looking forward to coping with the change.

"I think it is going to be a great opportunity," said the senior, the team's top kickoff returner. "It's a chance to make really good returns. Last year, everyone kicked deep or onside, trying to prevent it from being run back. This year, I think it will be more exciting for the fans to see more returns, and I like returning kicks."

In Indiana, Purdue coach Joe Tiller told the Associated Press that the move to the NFL's kickoff starting point is going to result in an increase in injuries.

"So now they're moving back 5 yards so we can create more g-forces as these kids are running into each other," said Tiller, who called the kickoff return the "most violent play" in football. "I'm not in favor of moving it back 5 yards. I think about the health and safety of the players, first and foremost. It's probably going to add a few more injuries that we didn't have in the past. And maybe a few more kicks will be returned."

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops told the Cox News Service that he, too, is worried about injuries: "You do worry about the opportunity for injury, because those are high-impact plays."

But Navy's Green said that while the kickoff is one of the most physical plays, "I don't see it as dangerous."

And Towson's special teams coach Mike McGlinchey pointed out: "Everything in football results in contact. It's a collision sport. These guys are well trained. They're prepared. Injuries shouldn't be that big an issue. Sure, they're going to happen, but they're usually a fluke."

Everyone, however, agreed fans are in for an array of kicks, everything from high bloopers to squib kicks to line drives. Whatever the kickoff team can do to keep the receiving team from getting that good field position.

Sun reporter Heather A. Dinich contributed to this article.

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