The NCAA Football Rules Committee met earlier this week and has offered up some possible rules changes for the coming football season.  This was a ‘non rules change’ year, as they meet every two years, but given that the NCAA feels there are some player safety enhancement possibilities, they got together and came up with the following:

1. 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.

2. Loss of Helmet During Play.  If a player loses his helmet (other than as the result of a foul by the opponent, like a facemask), it will be treated like an injury. The player must leave the game and is not allowed to participate for the next play. Current injury timeout rules guard against using this rule to gain an advantage from stopping the clock. Additionally, if a player loses his helmet, he must not continue to participate in play to protect him from injury. Data collected during the 2011 season indicated that helmets came off of players more than two times per game.

3. Blocking Below the Waist. The intent of the changes made last season were to only allow blocking below the waist when the opposing player is likely to be prepared for this contact, but the opposite impact was discovered in some cases. To clarify the intent, the committee approved wording that essentially allows offensive players in the tackle box at the snap that are not in motion to block below the waist legally without restriction. All other players are restricted from blocking below the waist with a few exceptions (e.g. straight ahead blocks).

4. Shield Blocking Scheme on Punting Plays. The committee reviewed several examples of shield blocking, which has become a popular blocking scheme for punting teams. In several cases, a receiving team player attempts to jump over this type of scheme in the backfield to block a punt. In some cases, these players are contacted and end up flipping in the air and landing on their head or shoulders. The committee is extremely concerned about this type of action and proposed a rule similar to the leaping rule on place kicks that does not allow the receiving team to jump over blockers, unless the player jumps straight up or between two players.

5. Additional Protection to Kick Returner. Through officiating interpretation, the committee approved a recommendation to provide a kick returner additional protection to complete a catch before allowing contact by the kicking team.

Here are some of my thoughts…

1. Kickoff and Touchback Starting Lines Moved: The running start aspect to this seems silly, as players can get up to full speed in about 10 to 15 yards and will not encounter any contact in that distance. The touchback aspect is interesting..if you have a good kick coverage unit, do you work to try to place your kicks inside the 5 yard line with the hopes of tackling the returner prior to the 25 for a net gain of field position vs a touchback? Memphis ranked 87th in FBS last year allowing 23.00 return yards per kickoff. I use this number because if you had a kicker who could regularly place the ball around the two-yard line, the average field position would be the 25. That means 86 teams, out of 120, had a better kickoff coverage average than that. So will this rule encourage coaches to play it safe and just settle for a touchback and spot the ball at the 25? It will for some, for the coaches who play the percentages close to the vest. But I wonder if it would be universally embraced? It could be a game to game situation, where you’d alter your strategy based upon the return skills each team has.

2. Loss of Helmet During Play. Making a player sit out the next play after they lose their helmet seems a bit much. Helmets seem to pop off more and more these days than they used to. Is that due to the design of the helmets? If so, helmets have been altered to make things more safe for the players. Not sure that I like this suggestion, because what if your stud 1 technique defensive tackle pops his helmet off on third and 1 where the defense stuffed the runner, and has to sit out the next play and the other team goes for it on 4th and 1? You know where the ball is coming. Or what if your quarterback is sacked and his helmet pops off? He has to miss the next play?

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3. Blocking Below the Waist.  Georgia Tech fans, rejoice!

4. Shield Blocking Scheme on Punting Plays. Wow…we are still talking about tackle football, right? I wonder how many successful blocking attempts there were with the shield technique in play? Teams are going to have to devise a better way to block a punt than trying to leap over the shield formation..and the NCAA is looking to mandate it.

5. Additional Protection to Kick Returner. That was quite vague and offered no definition to changing the rule, but I don’t have a problem with giving the punt returner more protection. I think that there should be incredibly stiff penalties for punt coverage team members who blow up a punt returner before he catches the ball. We see that happen about once a week on the highlight reels and those plays should face a disqualification. If they do it in the first half, they are kick out of the second half and it’s a 15 yard penalty. If they do it in the second half, kick them out of the first half of the next game and for the rest of the game they drew the penalty. Or how about when that happens, the receiving team can take possession of the ball at the line of scrimmage from where the punt took place? That would put an end to this, real quickly.

On the whole, none of these changes is ‘bad’.  The proposed changes to where the ball is kicked off from and where touchbacks are spotted would certainly have an effect on the number of big plays in a football game.  But the NFL went this route, too and touchbacks were far more common this season.

Simply put, the biggest impacts in football are typically in the return games, where players have a full speed running start in each direction.  Bad things can happen there and it’s surprising there aren’t concussions on every kickoff return.

Yet, there will be a big impact in the game.  Take a look at these numbers from the NFL from their recently completed 2011 season.  The ball was moved from the 30 to the 35 on kickoffs for this season:

2011: 53.4% of kicks returned, 43.5% touchbacks
2010: 80.1% / 16.4%
2009: 80.7% / 16.1%
2008: 82.1% / 14.4%
2007: 82.5% / 12.4%

Take a look at the impact to average starting field position:

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2011: 22.1 yard line
2010: 26.8
2009: 26.4
2008: 27.2
2007: 28.1

According to this item on SBNation, there were 8,361 kickoffs in FBS football. 1,375 of those kicks were touchbacks, which is 16.4 percent. That is the same percent we saw in the NFL in 2010 before that league made their adjustments last year. Now, the NFL didn’t include the 25 yard line touchback rule, so that would be a wrinkle to account for here.

Last season, Iowa had 68 kickoffs with just four touchbacks. Iowa ranked 58th in kickoff return defense, allowing an average of 21.64 yards per return. Kicker Mike Meyer averaged 63.0 yards per kick, which means on the average, his kicks made it to the seven yard line. Add 21.64 yards on to that and the opponents average starting field position after Iowa kickoffs was the nearly out to the 29 yard line.

When you take that into account, if Meyer averaged the same length on his kickoffs in 2012, with the ball moved ahead five yards, Iowa’s opponents would take over between the 23-24 yard lines, which is inside the 25 yard line spot for the proposed touchback rule.

All rules change recommendations must be approved by the Playing Rules Oversight Panel, which meets via conference call Feb. 21. The proposals will first be sent to the NCAA membership for comment.