Cutcliffe on eliminating and replacing kickoffs
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Cutcliffe on eliminating and replacing kickoffs

Veteran Duke coach says NCAA's new kickoff rule with fair catches falls short

Photo: Kickoff coverage

Duke coach David Cutcliffe is prepared to accept eliminating kickoffs. After the Blue Devils’ Saturday spring game, he said if the NCAA Football Rules Committee’s intent is to do away with the injury-prone play in phases, let’s be done with it now.

“I’ve been around a long time, and I’m ready to lose the kickoff.” said the 63-year-old coach, whose big-time football roots date to watching his older brother play at Florida alongside 1966 Heisman Trophy winner Steve Spurrier. “I get it.”

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The rule announced on Friday allows for fair catches to be called inside the 25-yard line. It’s similar to a punt fair catch, but the difference is the ball will be spotted at the 25 just like a touchback on a kickoff into the end zone.

It may be just a matter of time until the next phase of rules eliminates the kickoff, but for now Cutcliffe considers the new rule a half-measure toward that end.

“I’m not a big fan (of the new rule),” said Cutcliffe, who has served on the USA Football Advisory Committee. “To be honest with you, that’s somewhat of a Band-Aide. You’ve got to think how you are going to coach it and be fair to kids. You’ve got a guy back there is having to make a decision. Do I move with the ball? And now I’ve got to maybe run or make a fair catch signal.”

While the intent is the increase the safety for the receiver and the players closing in on a sprint is laudable, Cutcliffe’s concern extends to the remaining players among the 22 on the field.

“Everybody up front is still blocking and hitting,” he said. “I’m not sure what we accomplished. It sounds good reading it, but I don’t know if it is functional.”

Football at all levels has been under increased public scrutiny for injuries in general and more dramatically for the growing awareness of concussions and head injuries.

When the game's popularity was rapidly growing in the late 1960s and into the 1970s into the national pastime and NFL Super Bowl spectacle that is now, the violence of the kickoff was glamorized. Magazines featured photo spreads of the collisions and blood. TV put together film packages. Eventually, technology advanced so that the NFL could sell films highlighting the most violent hits.

But those football selling points are long gone.

Prior phases to implementing kickoff safety rules included, in 2012, moving the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35. That made it easier for kickers to reach the end zone for touchbacks. Another way to encourage touchbacks was to spot the ball at the 25 instead of the 20.

But eliminating the kickoff raises the question of what to do about the onside kick when teams are trying to make a comeback in the final moments – or surprise an opponent earlier in the contest.

When Alabama beat Clemson in the 2015 national championship game, coach Nick Saban used a surprise onside kick with 10:34 left in the game and the score tied 24-24. He called for it as much to keep Clemson’s on-fire quarterback, Deshaun Watson, off the field as to get the ball back for a scoring opportunity.

Cutcliffe offers a solution for the onside kick dilemma.

If a team scores and wants to try an onside kick, place the ball on its 30 or 35-yard line with a fourth-and-10 situation. It takes out the surprise of recovering an onside kick, but not the drama of a play to keep the ball.

“There’s your onside kick,” he said. “You go for it. You may have a better percentage than a definite onside kick. If you don’t want to go for it, you punt it like we do in the punt game. We don’t have (injury) problems in the punt game like we do in the kickoff coverage.”

In punt coverage, defenders are racing down the field in pursuit of the receiver, but a difference from kickoff coverage is there is a line of scrimmage on punts. Punt coverage linemen aren’t starting out by racing down the field with a 10-yard head start.

“We’ve still got collisions (with the new rule),” Cutcliffe said. “The ball can get sprayed over place with muffed catches when the receiver is not sure what he is going to do. It kept me up all night. I’m not sure how to coach it.”


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Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

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