Dienhart: Could kickoffs be eliminated from college football?

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Dienhart: Could kickoffs be eliminated from college football?

MEDIA DAYS - Big Ten Football Coordinator of Officials Bill Carollo addresses the media at 2016 Big Ten Football Media Days.

There is nothing like the excitement of a kickoff. The anticipation, the buildup, the possibilities.

The players line up with a week’s worth of pent-up energy ready to explode and unfold their fury. One team bent on stopping the return man in his tracks. The other club determined to spring its return man for a touchdown. And it all happens at 100 mph—or so it seems—marked with often violent collisions. But, kickoffs may be an endangered species all in the name of trying to make football safer.

A few weeks ago, CBSSports.com had a report that detailed the idea of kickoffs getting the boot. The American Football Coaches Association’s board of trustees and the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee have talked about the possibility of removing kickoffs from the game.

Both groups continue to review injury data. And, this is no revelation: “Preliminary indications are that injuries occur at a higher rate on kickoffs.” The story adds that no potential change would take place until after the 2017 season.

“There is a move toward safety in football,” said BTN analyst Chuck Long. “Those are high collision plays. If they can eliminate them to make the game safer, it may happen.”

USA Football started a “Heads Up Football” program a few years ago in attempt to make the sport safer, as tackling techniques are taught and emphasized to coaches in hopes of limiting the risk of injury.

The NFL also has gone on the offensive with ads promoting its efforts to make the game safer, too. All in attempt to acquiesce the fears of some amid reports of the perils of the sport, where talk of concussions, CTE and the like that have the parents of potential young players concerned. What will become of the future of the sport?

The NFL made a move in 2012 to lessen the number of kickoffs. The ball had been kicked off from the 30-yard line but was moved up the 35. The idea: More touchbacks would be the result, hence there would be fewer run backs … and fewer collisions.

The Ivy League will take it a step further, moving kickoffs to the 40-yard line this fall. Touchbacks will give teams the ball at the 20-yard line rather than at the 25. The new rules are a chance for the Ivy League to analyze if the changes enhance player safety.

The Ivy will be gathering data during the season, including the total number of kickoffs and touchbacks. Additionally, it will be monitoring the number of injuries during kickoffs along with the number of concussions in general vs. the number of concussions on kickoffs specifically. Also examined: The number of concussions suffered on touchbacks vs. concussions suffered on kicks returned from inside the end zone and kicks returned from outside of the end zone.

But how safe can football REALLY be made? It’s an inherently violent game whose appeal is largely built around the speed and ferocity of the sport.

“You can’t take kickoffs out of the game.” said Purdue receiver DeAngelo Yancey. “Yes, they are dangerous, but football is a dangerous sport.”

It’s a game that is built on toughness, grit and hard hits. And rarely are the hits harder than on kickoffs. But if they are eliminated, it would be another nod toward enhancing the safety of the game.

“We haven’t talked about it as Big Ten coaches,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “My own personal belief is if that play obviously is causing that many injuries and it’s that obvious from the data, then we need to replace it. Find a good way to replace it and get it out of the game.

“I think the players’ safety is always the number one priority. And so my own thing is that I would like to see them, rather than have the Ws and teams stuff like that, I would like to see them first, let’s try to do it where it’s all man blocking, so you don’t have the two-on-one blockings at full speed and that, and turn it all into a man-to-man scheme and give that a chance first.

Players are running full tilt down field, looking to figuratively “blow up” wedges … and stop the ball carrier in his tracks. Big hits are common.

The Big Ten has a family member who was impacted by the perils of kickoffs: former Rutgers’ player Eric LeGrand. Back in 2010 in a game vs. Army, LeGrand suffered a hit while trying to make a tackle on a kickoff that left him paralyzed. LeGrand suffered a spinal cord injury after colliding with Army’s Malcolm Brown. LeGrand lay on the ground for several minutes before being carted off. Still, despite the inherent dangers of kickoffs, some coaches don’t want to see them excluded.

“I coach the kickoff team,” said Rutgers coach Chris Ash. “I don’t want to see them taken away. Kickoffs are a tone-setter. And they can provide big plays for your team.”

No doubt, kickoffs are one of the most exciting plays in football. They can be game-changing events. Rarely during the course of a game does one of the fastest players on a roster get to run the ball with a full head of steam in the open field. A run back for a TD can change the course of a game. Heck, it can win a game. But, in this day and age, safety rules the day.

“If the injuries continue to happen on that one play, I think it’s in the best interests of the game to find another option,” Claeys said.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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