The clothesline by Mekhi Brown in the College Football Playoff Championship Game just over three months ago. The explosive tackle by Reuben Foster on Leonard Fournette at the end of regulation in the 2014 Alabama win at LSU. Mack Wilson’s pro bono dental work on Texas A&M’s Speedy Noil at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2016.
Those hits are part of the reason that kickoff returns are an endangered part of college football. For some people, they are emblematic of why kickoff returns should go. For others, those same plays are why kickoff coverage should stay.
It’s not just the returners who run a risk on kickoff returns. It’s also all those flying wedge blockers and wedge busters. The current environment is about protecting players from as many full speed hits as the game will allow, and the latest NCAA rules decision — allowing any kickoff fielded by fair catch inside the 25-yard line to come out to the 25 as a touchback — was made with that motive. But it also has yet another leveling effect on teams like Alabama, ones with abundant fast, strong athletes on coverage teams. Part of the Crimson Tide strategy, at least on some kickoffs, was to put the ball high and just short of the end zone and fly down with a dual purpose. First, if Alabama could stop an opposing returner inside the 25, that just meant more yardage that had to be gained against the Alabama defense. Second, if a Crimson Tide player could deliver one of those missile-warhead hits, there was a certain intimidation factor at play.
That’s why Nick Saban would like to have seen some compromise.
“I would have liked to have seen a different solution,” he said after Alabama’s Saturday scrimmage. I understand the reason, I respect the reason — which is player safety, but I guess I’ve been around long enough to remember when we use to kick off from the 40-yard line.
“So, for us old timers, I thought it would be an easier solution to just move it back up to the 40-yard line, because you’d get more touchbacks but you could still sky kick, onside kick — which you can still do some of those things, but you sky kick trying to give someone bad field position and they can fair catch the ball on the 15-yard line and get it on the 25.
“That takes some of the strategy out of the game, to me … and you would have had the same result if you just moved it up five yards. You still would have all the strategies that you could have used in other circumstances.”
The fact is, kickoffs would have been abolished altogether if not for the onside kick, which is the only thing that gives any chance to a team that trails by more than one score in the latter part of the fourth quarter.
Without a chance to at least try for an onside kick, teams would have to see the team with the lead simply awarded the ball and, in many endgame clock/score situations, that would be that. Now, a team can at least try — and, a couple of times or so in every college football season, succeed dramatically. There’s also at least the possible element of surprise, as in the Alabama-Clemson title game in 2015.
Even old-timers, as Saban calls himself (and some of the rest of us) understand that injuries — especially concussions — are an issue that must be addressed. But we also wonder if there might be a less drastic change that could serve the purpose.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.