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NCAA Football: New rules good in essence, bad in execution

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When the NCAA announced the rule changes for the upcoming season, it was no surprise that player safety was at the forefront of the discussion.  All four changes in 2012 are primarily focused on protecting the players by putting them in less impactful situations.

The two most important rule changes are the change in kickoffs and the new rules prohibiting players from participating without a helmet.

There is also a rule limiting cut-blocking to non-motioning players inside the tackle box. This will eliminate Running Backs and Wide Receivers on the outside from cutting low on unsuspecting defenders. The other rule will prohibit players from jumping over blockers in an attempt to block a punt.

The die-hard older generation of fans will look at it as the softening of the game we have grown to love for its’ brutal no-holds barred style of play, while others will look at it as progress towards reaching a more modern, health-conscious outlook on the game of football.

Truthfully, it’s somewhere in between. While I agree with the intention of the new rules – player safety is vital and should be addressed — there are a lot of question marks with the rules that I find hard to overlook.

Kickoffs

The least surprising rule change was the NCAA’s decision to adopt the NFL’s kickoff rule, which moves the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. Unlike the NFL, the NCAA will award teams the ball at the 25-yard line after a touchback. Kicking teams will also only be allowed to line up 5-yards behind the ball.

The rule gives both teams an advantage, with the kicking team hopefully limiting kickoff touchdowns or big plays and the receiving team gaining five extra yards, all while protecting the safety of the athletes.

Last year the NFL saw a huge decrease in kickoff returns with many being kicked out of the back of the end zone. You probably won’t see this kind of impact with college kickers, but you can count on kickoff returns being cut down by a fairly large number.

Limiting teams to lining up five yards behind the ball also decreases the opportunities of powerful impact when teams do return a kickoff. After the horrific Eric LeGrand injury, I can’t really argue too much against this change.

However, the rule does take away a very important special teams play – yes, I know that’s the point –thus making the sport less exciting and making special teams less impactful on the outcome of the game.

Detached helmets

The NCAA also adapted a new rule that forces players to basically stop playing when their helmet comes off. Not only do players have to stop playing, they also have to sit out the next play similar to players who are injured during a game.

In Summary:

–    If a player’s helmet comes off, he is forced to sit out the next down. Only exception being if the helmet comes off due to penalty (face masks, illegal hands to the face, etc.).

–    If a ball carrier’s helmet comes off, the play is blown dead and the play is over.

–    If someone other than a ball carrier loses his helmet, he must stop playing or he faces a 15-yard penalty for “prolonged participation.” Whatever that is.

–    With less than a minute remaining in either half, if a play is called dead due to a ball carrier’s helmet coming off, there is also a 10-second runoff. If a team has a timeout, they can elect to use the timeout to avoid the loss of 10 crucial seconds.

I understand the rule in essence. It is intended to put players out of harm’s way and gives players more of an incentive to buckle their chinstraps a little tighter. There’s nothing more annoying than seeing the same player lose his helmet multiple times in a game due to wearing too big of a helmet or not properly wearing the equipment.

However, there are a lot of question-marks and what-if’s with the new rule. This might be my most hated rule in NCAA football and that’s really saying something.

First of all, do you really expect players to stop playing when they lose their helmets? If a Left Tackle loses his helmet, does he stop blocking for his Quarterback and allow the signal-caller to get blindsided? That, in my opinion, would lead to more injuries than someone blocking, tackling or even running without a helmet.

Second, it gives players more of an incentive to legally rip the helmet off their opponents. Picture a Running Back having his helmet ripped off, without a penalty called, in the bottom of a pile after coming up inches short on a crucial third-down late in the game. It’s unfair to force the player to sit out on fourth-down due to the referee’s inability to properly handle the situation.

It’s also ridiculous to think about a team losing a game with less than 10 seconds remaining due to a ball-carrier losing his helmet on the field. Having a game end on a silly penalty like that would not only be the least-dramatic ending of all-time, it would also be one of the most controversial and heart-breaking for players, coaches and fans of the losing team.

The rule-change isn’t only being questioned by guys like me who sit behind a keyboard. It is also being questioned by current and former players across the nation. Adam Bates, a former Center/Long-Snapper at Miami (Fl.) from 2003-2006, recently went on record about the rule-change.

“There are circumstances where the helmets are DESIGNED to come off,” Bates said. “Speaking from experience having my helmet taken off on occasion, I’m quite happy that the helmet is designed to give way before my spinal cord does. Wouldn’t it have been great if Danny Wuerffel’s entire head had been twisted around instead of just his helmet?”’

Bates raises an interesting point here. Some injuries will occur that could have easily been avoided if it wasn’t for the NCAA’s new rule on detached helmets. As someone who has battled some great Miami defenders in the trenches, I value his opinion on what’s really best for the player’s safety.
If only the NCAA would listen.

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