2012 NCAA Football: Wait, there are rule changes?

Way back in February, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved rule changes effective for the entirety of the 2012 season. Since nobody was paying attention to football in the heart of basketball season (i.e. I wasn't paying attention), it may have been news to you when this was reiterated during this week's ACC Kickoff media event. With football season bearing down on us, here is a summary so you know what to expect this year and how the alterations will affect the Hoos. Info from the NCAA website:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.

Clearly, the change to the touchback rules is the one that will have the largest and most visible effect. Teams will kick off from 5 yards closer to the opponent's end zone, which should encourage more touchbacks...but touchbacks are disincentivized, as receiving teams will start at their 25 yard line. This seems like good news for the Hoos, who have struggled to kick the ball through the end zone; the team had just seven touchbacks last year. However, the true effects of the change are yet to be seen. While the NCAA hopes to reduce the number of kickoff returns and prevent injury, the new start location could cause teams to employ unconventional strategies, such as squib kicks or high kicks, thus increasing the number of attempted returns.

Overall, the change should increase the importance of having a good kicker, who could attempt to pin his opponents deep, and decrease the importance of returners...who will be pinned deep. Basically, we may not endure the same kick coverage adventures as in the past, but the electric Dominique Terrell and Darius Jennngs will likely have fewer opportunities to make plays for the Hoos. I'll call it a push. Note that this rule change does not apply on punts.

The other tweaks, all focused on player safety, will have less of an on-the-field impact. The "loss of helmet" rule is a good one, pressuring players to finally start buckling those up more tightly. I do not, however, support the rule dealing with the shield blocking scheme; we need more players jumping over each other, not less.

There seems to be a divide between those who support this type of action to make the game safer and those who believe that protecting young adults from serious injury is turning football into a sissy sport. Yes, I subscribe to the former. Still, because it makes a significant change to how the game is played without a definite positive effect, I do not love the kickoff rule change. What say you?
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