This fall, when a returner catches a kickoff eight yards deep in his own end zone, he’ll really think twice about crossing that goal line and bringing the ball out.
That’s because instead of trying to make an improbable 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, he can aid his team by just taking a knee. If he genuflects in the end zone, the ball will be placed at the 25-yard line — five more yards than before. Subsequently, teams will kick from the 35-yard line, not the 30-yard line.
“The rules maker’s intent there is more touchbacks, less collisions, less injuries,” said Southeastern Conference coordinator of officials Steve Shaw, who explained the new NCAA rules at SEC Media Days on Wednesday. “As we compile statistics, that’s a play that has a higher level of potential injury in it than a regular scrimmage down. There’s going to be work around making the kickoff safer.”
With five more valuable yards up in the air, the approach to kickoffs will be unpredictable. Coaches across the SEC and country might try techniques like the pooch kick and squib kick to keep the ball from rolling into the end zone.
“Coaches know how valuable every inch is, how valuable that real estate is,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said. “If you can pin them inside the 10 or 15 with some kind of kick or coverage, you want to do that, no doubt about it.”
Touchbacks on other plays — such as punts that go into the end zone or a fumble that goes out of the end zone — will remain at the 20-yard line.
Onside kicks could also see a massive facelift. In the past, teams have tried to drive kicks into the ground, creating a one-hop, lob kick that hangs in the air and, if it goes 10 yards, allows the kicking team to jar the ball loose with brutal collisions.
Now, this would be considered kick-catch interference. On kicks that are driven straight into the ground, the “receiving team is afforded protection to catch that hop just like it was an airborne kick,” Shaw said. “That will take that one-hop kick out of the game as far as onside kicks.”
Shaw also discussed several other rule changes approved by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel in February.
• If a player’s helmet comes off, and it’s not the result of a foul, he will have to leave the game for one play. If a helmet-less player continues to play beyond his continuing action — for example, a defensive end who keeps chasing a quarterback after losing his helmet — that will result in a 15-yard penalty. The NCAA found that helmets came off more than twice a game in 2011.
“Playing time is the most precious commodity to players,” Shaw said, “so we think that will give them an incentive to get these buckled up and fitted properly.”
• On punts, after returners catch the ball, they have a protected space of “a shoulder width and one yard in front of them” before opponents can make contact.
• Also on punts, players trying to block punts are no longer allowed to jump over the three-person “shield” that protects the punter. If a player does leap or jump over, it’s a 15-yard penalty from the previous spot and automatic first down.
“You can go through them, around them, dive around them, but you cannot jump over them,” Shaw said. “The intent of that is we were receiving a lot of players on this shield trying to jump over and going into the ground head first.”
• Blocks below the waist are only legal for offensive players in the tackle box but a foul occurs if they “peel back toward his own goal line and block below the waist,” Shaw said. All other players are prohibited from blocks below the waist, though there are a few exceptions, such as straight-ahead blocks.
“This [rule] is one very technical in nature but is, again, around player safety,” Shaw said. “That was the intent of all these rule changes.”