Beginning this season, college football teams will join NFL teams in kicking off from the 30-yard line rather than the 35. Five yards, no big deal, right? Wrong, apparently.
“It’s going to be one of the most significant rules changes to come about in recent years – maybe in a decade,” Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. “You’re gonna see scoring averages go up because of this rule change.”
The change in starting field position will be much greater than just that 5 yards, most SEC coaches agree. Here’s how that affects Richt: For years, he has had to defend his team’s choice to kick high, directional kickoffs rather than let the kicker try to boot the ball into the end zone for a touchback.
“Now, I won’t have to answer that question as much,” Richt said. “Now I think everybody is going to have to be doing it that way. You’re going to see a lot more directional kicks, trying to land it with hang time. I think what we’ve been doing for years is more of what everybody else is going to be doing.”
Assistant coach Jon Fabris is the architect of Georgia’s kickoff coverage team. For the Bulldogs, the rule change will be easier to absorb because of the way they’ve been doing things since Richt and Fabris arrived.
“We’ve never had a lot of touchbacks here,” Fabris said. “There are some schools that I know of in our league that I bet 80 percent of their kicks were touchbacks.”
The Bulldogs had 15 touchbacks last year, the sixth-lowest total in the league. Auburn, by comparison, had 51.
“You don’t want any part of the game being just a snoozer play, not that that play was, but we all know that there were quite a few balls that we touchbacks. Do people come to watch touchbacks? No,” Fabris said. “That’s why the NFL puts the ball back on the 30 because they’re in the entertainment business. Whether we like to admit it or not, the college game is entertainment too and TV contracts and money and paying bills.”
Fabris, a football fundamentalist, loves the simplicity of the kickoff.
“It is probably one of the least changed parts of the game throughout history,” he said. “You tee it up, 11 men behind a restraining line, 11 men down the field. Here we come and here we are. Not a lot of room for the faint of heart.”
Some teams may decide to simply kick the ball out of bounds and give the return team the ballon the 35, Brooks said. Others might put more frontline players on its kickoff teams thanks to the change, Florida coach Urban Meyer said.
“A lot of times you hope your kicker kicks it out of the end zone and you move on,” Meyer said. “But you have to have a horse to kick that thing out of the end zone now.”
The coverage personnel at Georgia is unlikely to change.
“You don’t think we have very good athletes on kickoffs?” Fabris asked in response to that theory.
Georgia’s kickoff return strategy is unlikely to change either. That group, coached by running backs coach Tony Ball, consistently features starters.
The Bulldogs only returned 25 percent of the kickoffs they received last year, taking touchbacks on the others, Richt said. He expects to return 75 to 90 percent of this year’s kicks.
“Not only is it more important, it probably is three or four times more important,” Richt said.