MORGANTOWN — Football as we know it will continue to change for the sake of player safety and with the growing worry over head injuries.
One of the biggest changes through the years in college football has to do with kickoffs. In 2010, the NCAA voted to ban wedge-blocking, where the return team would line up shoulder to shoulder and create a shield for the returner to follow. The kicking team would have specific players designated to bust up the shield, running head first into a wall of blockers, which caused head and other significant injuries.
Two years later, the NCAA voted to move the spot the ball was kicked to the 35-yard line from the 30-yard line in an effort to have more touchbacks. And touchbacks would now place the ball for the offense at its own 25-yard line rather than the 20-yard line.
All of this was an effort to reduce the number of kickoff returns — considered the most dangerous plays in the game. Two teams riding the emotion of the start of the game or a scoring play are running full sprint into one nother after covering nearly 70 yards of ground.
For an example of what can happen, look no further than former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand, who suffered a neck injury defending a kickoff in 2010, paralyzing him from the waist down.
The NCAA took another step toward eliminating kickoff returns two weeks ago. It approved a new rule that allows a return man to fair-catch inside his 25-yard line without penalty, and his offense will still get the ball at the 25-yard line. It’s the same outcome as a touchback, but rather than being forced to return the ball if it’s not in the end zone, he can make the safe play.
Coaches had found a way around the rules established five years ago by telling kickers to kick the ball high and toward the sideline, short of the end zone, in an effort to pin the return man inside the 25. Now, those kicks can be fair caught, and instead of the ball being placed at the spot of the catch, it will be placed at the 25.
We’re moving closer and closer to kickoffs being outlawed completely, with offense taking over at its own 25-yard line right after a scoring play by the opponent — similar to how it works in college overtime.
For football purists, none of these are welcomed changes. There is no doubt that the kickoff is one of the most exciting plays in the game. Most WVU fans remember Tavon Austin, Shawn Terry and Adam “Pacman” Jones, and any time those guys touched the ball, there was a chance for something special to happen.
It’s a tone-setting play that can get a home crowd into it in a hurry, and can put the opposing team in a bad place if it allows one to go to the house.
But as much as fans love it, there is no denying that it is dangerous. As a whole, football is a dangerous game, but if the NCAA is acting in the best interest of the players by making it safer, then it’s tough to argue.
If the rules are going to continue to be changed in such a drastic fashion, why beat around the bush instead of just cutting to the chase? If the NCAA is doing everything in its power to create more touchbacks and fewer returns, just get rid of kickoffs and have offenses start at the 25.
It seems as if they want to make the game safer but are afraid of the backlash eliminating kickoffs entirely would cause. So as of now, the NCAA can still say, “We still have kickoffs, what are you so upset about?”