Moving kickoffs up by 5 yards to the 35, and placing touchbacks at the 25 instead of the 20, as the NCAA will do beginning this fall, will affect the Gophers more than most, special teams coach Jay Sawvel figures. And he can sum up the reason in two words:
Said Sawvel: "I'm all for things that keep players safe, but I'm not a big fan of" the rule changes, which were approved by the football playing-rules committee this week. He added: "One of the things we did pretty well last year was cover kickoffs. And we've got Troy."
Stoudermire is the Big Ten's all-time leader in kickoff-return yards, and he will return for another season after missing the final eight games of 2011 because of a broken bone in his right arm. He may find it less tempting to return kicks that sail into the end zone, though, because of the extra 5 yards that a touchback will bring. (The ball still goes to the 20 on punts, fumbles or interceptions in the end zone, however.)
Safety is the reason for the package of new rules, which include other changes:
• Kick-coverage teams can line up no deeper than 5 yards behind the ball, to limit their run-up to the line of scrimmage.
• Players trying to block punts can no longer attempt to jump over blockers, or multi-player "shields" in front of the punter; they can only jump straight up.
• If a player's helmet comes off during a play, he must stop participating in that play, and he must leave the field for at least one play.
The NFL moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line last season in order to cut down on high-speed collisions by increasing the number of touchbacks, and according to preliminary statistics reported by USA Today, the rule reduced the number of concussions on those plays by half. There were 32 percent fewer kicks returned, nearly three times as many touchbacks, and nine touchdown returns, down from 23 a year before.
"We're always going to follow the NFL, because they do all the studies," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "You hate to [neutralize] a great return guy, but we're always looking for safety. If this helps, then so be it."
Sawvel, though, believes that the changes are misguided and that injuries can be reduced by changing how returns are blocked and covered. Simply reducing the frequency of kickoffs addresses the symptom, not the problem, he said.
"We're still going to coach guys to get down the field [quickly], because you don't know that the ball will be kicked out of the end zone, and we're still going to double-team. So you're not minimizing contact, you're just changing how often [kickoff returns] happen," said Sawvel, a coach for 18 seasons.
Kickoffs can be made safer, Sawvel said, without simply increasing touchbacks. "You can eliminate double-teams, go to eight or nine one-on-one blocks, things like that, without taking it out of the game," he said. "It's about coaching players not to lead with their head and not to play out of control. That's the important thing."