Duke coach David Cutcliffe is not a fan of the new college football kickoff rule that allows touchbacks on fair catches inside the 25-yard line, he said on Saturday.
The 63-year-old Cutcliffe, who's in his fifth decade of coaching and learned the game as an Alabama student under legendary coach Bear Bryant in the mid-1970s, believes the rule changes should go further to protect players from injuries, mainly concussions.
“I’ll be honest with you,” Cutcliffe said after Duke's spring game on Saturday. “I’m ready, and I’ve been around a long time, I’m ready to lose the kickoff. I get it.”
On Friday, the NCAA announced rules changes for the upcoming season, including the radical change to the kicking game. Fair catches, normally only seen on punt returns, will now be allowed on kickoffs that are fielded inside the 25. The receiving team will take possession at its own 25, just as it does on touchbacks where the ball reaches the end zone on kickoffs. The NCAA’s aim is to reduce exposure to injury by increasing the number of touchbacks.
Cutcliffe, though, doesn’t believe this new rule goes far enough, calling it a “Band-Aid.”
“I’m not sure what we’ve accomplished,” Cutcliffe said. “It sounds all good when you read it. I’m just not sure it’s functional.”
The return man, Cutcliffe said, will have added responsibility that could put him in a bad spot. But, also, other players on the field, besides the kick returner, will still be exposed to injury through the type of violent collisions unique to the return game.
“You’ve got to think about how you are going to coach it and be fair to kids,” Cutcliffe said. “You’ve got a guy back there that is having to make a decision. Do I move to catch the ball? Now he’s got to run. He’s maybe got to make a fair catch signal. Then everybody up front is still blocking and still hitting.”
Instead, Cutcliffe agrees with those who believe it’s time to get rid of kickoffs and give the opposing team ball on the 25 after touchdowns are scored. He’s even found a way to satisfy coaches who believe the onside kick still has a role in the game: Give the scoring team a possession with one play to get 10 yards for a first down to keep possession.
“There’s talk out there about the team that scores has the opportunity to put the ball on the 30 or 35-yard line. It’s fourth-and-10,” Cutcliffe said. “There’s your onside kick. You go for it. You may have a better percentage than a definite onside kick. Then if you don’t want to do that, you punt it and we don’t have problems in the punt game like we do in the kickoff coverage game.”
This is the third time in the past six years the NCAA has made significant changes to kickoffs.
In 2012, kickoffs were moved from the 30 to the 35 to make it easier for the kicker to get the ball to the end zone to increase touchbacks.
That same year, a rule change placed the ball at the 25, instead of the 20, on kickoff touchbacks to encourage teams to accept more touchbacks.