Scenes we're likely to see during the opening weekend of the 2012 college football season:
• A coach asking why the kickoff man kicked the ball too far.
• Fans booing a kickoff returner who caught the ball and took a knee, just inside the end zone.
The NCAA's new kickoff rules are designed to reduce the number of returns, keeping players safer by eliminating collisions that occur during kickoff coverage. The trouble is, the committee made everything much more complicated, and all of this will require some adjustment even for those just watching.
By moving kickoffs up 5 yards to the 35-yard line and having the offense start at the 25 (instead of the 20) after a touchback, the committee figured it would be much easier to kick the ball into the end zone, and returners would have less motivation to bring the ball out.
That's logical, right? "If we are so concerned about protecting the players â¦ it makes sense to have less balls returned," said BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall.
The problem is that defense-oriented coaches such as Mendenhall, Utah's Kyle Whittingham and Utah State's Gary Andersen won't like having opponents start at the 25. They'll quickly come to view a touchback as a 5-yard penalty, and they'll get creative.
Instead of having the kicker blast the ball deep into the end zone, they'll order high, directional kicks in an effort to pin opponents inside the 25.
"That's all predicated upon what kicker you have," said Jay Hill, Utah's special teams coordinator. Nick Marsh, the Utes' kickoff man, is adept at booting the ball high, enabling the coverage team to get downfield.
Kicking from the 30 last season, Marsh recorded 11 touchbacks in 67 kickoffs. His average kick went to the 4-yard line. But opposing returners averaged only 18 yards, so the Utes consistently kept them shy of the 25.
Now that the tacklers will start 5 yards closer to the end zone, there's even more incentive for Marsh to kick the ball high and short, forcing a return.
That's good strategy, even if it's not what the rules committee had in mind.
The interesting dynamic is between returners who want to bring kicks out of the end zone and coaches who would be happy to have the ball at the 25. "I'm confident enough to take it out of the end zone," said Utah's Reggie Dunn. "As long as I catch it going forward, I should be able to take it out. I've just got to make sure I make good decisions."
The Utes' experience with the new rule will begin Aug. 30, when Northern Colorado visits Rice-Eccles Stadium. Marsh and the coverage team should have about a dozen opportunities to experiment that night, while the Utes' return team will get much less practice.
The new kickoff rule likely will be the most noticeable among other changes unless somebody loses his helmet or attempts an onside kick.
No player will ever duplicate the exploits of former BYU offensive tackle Matt Reynolds, who made a critical block after his helmet came off during a touchdown play against Tulsa in the Armed Forces Bowl. The rules now require a player to stop competing during the play and sit out the next play.
And the popular onside-kick method of drilling the ball into the ground and creating a high bounce is now obsolete, because the receiving team is promised a chance to catch the ball, until it bounces twice. That change comes a year too late for Utah State, which otherwise would have beaten Auburn in a season opener.