By Greg Johnson
New NCAA football kickoff-return rules produced more touchbacks in games played through Oct. 6 than all of the touchbacks that occurred during the entire 2011 season in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Through the first six weeks of the season, 1,450 touchbacks were recorded on kickoffs at the FBS level. Last year, 1,397 touchbacks were registered on kickoffs.
This season, kickoffs are from the 35-yard line instead of the 30-yard line. If the kick results in a touchback, the offense starts its possession at the 25-yard line instead of the 20-yard line.
Additionally, kicking-team players are allowed only a five-yard running start before the ball is put into play. Previously, players were allowed to take as long of a running start as they wanted.
The new kickoff rules were implemented this season after the NCAA Football Rules Committee examined 2011 data showing that injuries during kickoffs occur more often than in other phases of the game.
Analysis of the 2012 injury data will not be known until after the season, but the Football Rules Committee decision to limit the number of kickoff returns in the game appears to be working.
“Everyone is in chase mode on kickoff returns,” said Rogers Redding, NCAA Football Rules Committee secretary-rules editor and national coordinator of college football officials. “Before the return starts, the kicking team is flying down the field and the receiving team players are running back to protect the runner. There are some collisions, but mainly, the more significant collisions happen on the return and not the kick.”
Committee members know they can’t eliminate all the hitting that occurs when the ball is kicked off.
“There is always going to be some contact on those plays, as with any play in the game,” Redding said. “When a kickoff ends in a touchback, there can be some contact on the play, but it is nothing close to what happens when a return occurs.”
Redding said all aspects of the new kicking rules, including starting the ensuing drive at the 25-yard line, are contributing to fewer kickoffs being returned. He said data show that when a player brings the ball out of the end zone, the offense usually starts inside the 25-yard line.
Redding is also tracking another new rule. Whenever a player loses his helmet (other than as the result of a foul by the opponent, such as a facemask), he is not allowed to participate in the next play.
During the first four weeks of the season, players had to leave the game for at least a play between 2.5 to 3 times a game at the FBS level. However, the rate came down to about twice a game over the next couple of weeks.
In 2011, helmets also came off about two times a game.
Redding said one of the game-day officials keeps track of when the helmets come off in games and reports those numbers to his conference’s coordinator of official. In turn, he reports them to a website so the rules committee and commissioners can be updated.
From his observations, Redding sees the awareness about the rule.
“When a player’s helmet comes off, they pick it up and just trot off the field,” Redding said. “The officials don’t have to remind them to leave the field. There really isn’t any conversation.”