VU won’t feel the kick of new ‘rugby punt’ rule

Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 9:11pm
Rugby is one of the most physical sports in the world, so it makes sense that there is an increased potential for contact when college football teams use a ‘rugby punt’ this fall.

Vanderbilt’s Brett Upson, though, does not figure he is going to get thumped regularly, or even at all.

The Music City Bowl’s most valuable player along with members of the coaching staff performed a self-review of the past two seasons and came to the conclusion that the only significant change to the college football rulebook for the coming season will not impact them at all.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” Upson said. “…I wasn’t really worried about it because I don’t do the regular rugby where I run toward the line of scrimmage. I’m more back.”

Increasingly in recent seasons teams have gone to the rugby-style kick in which the punter holds the ball longer by running with it after the snap. He then drives a low, end-over-end kick designed to make the ball roll out of bounds or to a stop where it can be downed without ever being handled by a return man.

Beginning in 2009, if the punter ventures outside the tackle box — five yards to either side of the snapper — during that process he will be treated as any other ball carrier and any protection under roughing-the-kicker rules are voided. That means he is subject to being tackled, blocked or any other standard form of contact, even as he attempts to kick the ball.

The theory behind the change is that punting teams generated too much of an advantage because they fostered uncertainty among the return team.

“From a defensive standpoint, it was difficult to tell, ‘Is this guy going to be a runner, are we at risk if we run into him?’” Rogers Redding, the SEC’s Coordinator of Football Officials, said. “(Also) there are some advantages to the kicking team. It gives the gunners more time to get down field because he's taking more time before he kicks the ball.”

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said Upson and the Commodores employed their version of the rugby kick just short of 50 percent of the time last season when they were among the nation’s best in limiting punt returns.

In reviewing their punts from the previous two seasons, they found only one instance they found only one instance in which Upson ventured outside the tackle box. Part of that is because Upson does not perform a true rugby kick.

“I didn’t really like the regular rugby kick that I was doing in the beginning …so I kind of got together with a coach and kind of transformed my regular punt into the rugby punt on the run where I just run out and kick it like a regular punt,” Upson said. “It’s a lower punt. It has more direction to it, and it doesn’t get on the ground quite as fast.”

That does not mean it’s not effective.

Only 30 of VU’s 82 punts were returned for a total of 125 yards. That average of 1.5 return yards per punt was best in the SEC. Of the 52 not returned, only six resulted in touchbacks.

Then there was the Music City Bowl, in which one of his rugby kicks hit a Boston College defender and was recovered in the end zone by Sean Richardson for VU’s only touchdown.

“Our rugby kick is sort of an abbreviated (one),” Johnson said. “(Upson) only takes about a step and a half. It’s sort of a drive directional punt.

“We were doing rugby (in previous seasons) so we kept calling it the same thing.”

Consequently, they won’t have to do anything differently in light of the rules change.

BO KNOWS (or at least this is what he thinks at the moment)

An observation from The City Paper sports writer David Boclair:

At least one of the three freshmen running backs is going to see the field early and often this season. The bet here is that it’s Zac Stacy, a two-time West Alabama Player of the Year out of Centerville.

Stacy is only 5-foot-9, but he’s 192 pounds, courtesy of a thick midsection and thighs, which make him look more ready than the others for the physical nature of SEC football.

His speed is obvious to anyone who sees him run. However – as with any freshman running back – it remains to be seen how quickly he can master the finer points of the position such as blitz pick-up, etc. To that end, it should be noted that he started as a freshman in high school.