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Matter of time (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday February 14, 2007 7:53PM; Updated: Wednesday February 14, 2007 7:53PM
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Indiana's Marcus Thigpen may leave more kickers in the dust next year with the proposed kickoff rules.
Indiana's Marcus Thigpen may leave more kickers in the dust next year with the proposed kickoff rules.

Wednesday's news was music to the ears of Indiana coach Terry Hoeppner, whose team happens to include the nation's top kick returner, rising junior Marcus Thigpen. (Thigpen was the only player in the country last season to return three kickoffs for touchdowns). "Now they just need to add a rule that the kicker can't try to kick a moon ball or squib it," Hoeppner joked Wednesday afternoon. "Because by the end of the season [last year], no one would kick to him."

You don't have to be a coach to see the obvious impact this rule could have next season. Unless every kicker in the country manages to add 5 yards to his distance by the start of September, there are going to be a whole lot more returnable kicks next season, which means a whole lot more drives starting at the 35 of 40 yard line instead of the 20.

"It will put the onus on the kicking team to really be prepared," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, a member of the rules committee. "And it's going to put a lot of pressure on the defense."

Said Hoeppner: "You're going to see a whole lot more starters on kick coverage."

Several programs had already been moving in that direction prior to this latest change. Virginia Tech and Texas, among others, have long been noted for their emphasis on special teams. Hoeppner, along with Ohio State's Jim Tressel, are among the rare coaches who hold a scrimmage in the spring devoted entirely to kicking plays.

There are plenty of others, however, that either don't place as much emphasis on that area or, for whatever reason, struggle to execute. Arkansas' three straight losses to end last season (vs. LSU, Florida and Wisconsin) all involved special-teams breakdowns. Bowl teams Michigan, Georgia Tech, Southern Miss, Florida State and Iowa all ranked 75th or lower nationally in both kick-return yardage and kick-return yardage allowed.

Under the new rules, it stands to reason that teams that either possess an elite return man or happen to be particularly adept at that aspect of the game may be able to better use it to their advantage.

"It's kind of the hidden yardage in a game," said Hoeppner. "Special teams is an area we emphasize. For a program where we are right now, maybe we can make that next step by being exceptional in an area that's somewhat neglected."

Wednesday's proposed changes resulted in large part from surveys about last year's rules filled out by the nation's coaches -- not that we couldn't have guessed how they felt from some of their public comments last season. "All coaches at all levels of football were against those rules," said Bellotti, who replaced Auburn's Tommy Tuberville this year as the I-A coaches' representative on the committee. "These changes have restored the opportunity for football players to play football. I'm very satisfied as a coach."

Between now and the formal vote by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel, coaches and other parties will be afforded an "open comment period" to voice their opinions. This begs an obvious question: If last year's rules changes were so widely unpopular, how did they get adopted in the first place? Many coaches indicated last season they felt blindsided by the changes. "They didn't ask the coaches to vote on it," South Carolina's Steve Spurrier said at the time. "They just said, 'Here is the new rule.' "

Clark said the committee did a poor job last year making coaches aware of the open-comment period. This year there should be no such problem -- not to mention there appears to be little about these changes that would merit opposition.

But coaches are also notorious for remaining largely mum about an issue until it actually affects them. Prediction: The first time a prominent coach loses a game next season due to an opponent's kick return, he'll start railing about the unfairness of the new kickoff line.

Coaches, consider yourself warned this time. Might want to spend some extra time on kick-coverage this spring.

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