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The Roanoke Times (Virginia)


"Listen to this crowd here in Indianapolis! You know, Herbie, in all my years of broadcasting, I don't know that I've ever heard a college football venue this loud."

"It's amazing, isn't it, Chris?"

"Sure is. But why wouldn't these fans be pumped? They're at the 2022 national championship game, and two of the blue bloods of college football - undefeated Alabama and unbeaten Ohio State - are about to lock horns here."

"Can't wait."

"Alabama has won the toss and elected to start with possession. The official has placed the football on the 25-yard line. Listen to that roar! Here ... we ... go ..."

We will miss kickoffs when they're gone. Even if they've already become something largely perfunctory, essentially automatic touchbacks whenever the kicker wants them to be, there's a symbolism to kickoffs that connects the games past and presence.

Ball booted off a tee. Flashbulbs popping. Crazed coverage men racing down the field, having waited at least a week for this moment.

That ritual is going to die soon, it seems. Maybe in just a couple of years. The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel took another small step in that direction earlier this month, when it approved a change that allows the receiving team to fair catch a kick inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback.

This comes six years after kickoffs were moved from the 30-yard line to the 35, giving pretty much anybody with a functioning leg the ability to reach the end zone and negate returns. That also was the year teams began starting their touchback drives on the 25-yard line instead of the 20, further incentivizing teams to eschew returns.

All this has been done in the name of safety, which is a noble reason. ESPN reported last month that the NFL competition committee will recommend eliminating kickoffs in the near future, barring a significant reduction in injuries on that play.

"If you don't make changes to make it safer, we're going to do away with it," Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy, a member of the committee, told ESPN. "It's that serious. It's by far the most dangerous play in the game."

College football's new rule doesn't eliminate the kickoff yet, but it does add a strategy component every time the ball is in the air short of the end zone. Fair catch or not?

"I don't think I have an answer yet," UVa coach Bronco Mendenhall said this week, when asked about how the new rule will impact his special teams. "We're still in the exploring, researching and innovation stage of how might it affect us, what strategies might be employed to keep the ball away from our returner like we have, and how the rule change might affect us ...

"What I like is the intent to make the game as safe as possible knowing that it's a physical and violent game. So I think taking that into consideration and altering what rules can and will affect players being more safe, I think is a great step."

Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi said he doesn't think we'll notice that much of a difference with the new rule. Teams without an explosive return man might opt for the fair catch, but he predicts we'll still see plenty who want to test their luck in the open field.

"I don't know if there was a study done on how many balls were kicked out of the end zone or taken out of the end zone, but people are not afraid to take it out of the end zone," Narduzzi said. "So what good does that rule do?"

Maybe not much. And if that's the case - given the NFL competition committee's mandate - that might just bring us closer to having no kickoffs at all.

Surely there will be more discussion among the ACC coaches about this come July, when the media report to Charlotte for the annual ACC Football Kickoff.

They haven't renamed that thing "ACC Football Place It On The 25-Yard Line" quite yet.

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April 22, 2018


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