The linebacker played a key role in Iowa’s kickoff coverage last season.
Next week, NFL owners will convene in Atlanta to — among other things — vote on proposed changes to kickoffs in the name of player safety.
There are decent suggestions.
Formational requirements that prohibit kick-coverage men to get running starts. The elimination of wedge blocks. Requiring at least eight men to line up in a 15-yard “setup zone,” which would theoretically trim the chance of high-speed blocking.
Those changes would be imperfect and still put the kickoff return on track to become an endangered species in football. But they’d still be far better than the lousy college rule that was adopted last month — the one that allows a return team to fair catch a kickoff inside the 25 … and get the ball at the 25, just like a touchback.
It’s a terrible rule. And that’s not just coming from me.
In an appearance on our Hawk Central radio show on Wednesday night, Iowa special-teams coach LeVar Woods said the rule is akin to a “cop-out.”
To compare it to a sport near and dear to Iowans’ hearts …
Suppose a wrestler is in danger of getting pinned, but he had the option to wave his hand to the official and get a free pass to go back to the center of the mat and start wrestling all over again … with no penalty.
“I can’t say I’m really in favor of the rule, if I’m being honest,” Woods said Wednesday in what turned out to be his most passionate topic of a 20-minute interview. “I think it’s going to change the game quite a bit.”
And not for the better.
Woods understands the goal. I do, too. There’s a push to eliminate high-speed football collisions that cause serious player injuries.
But there are so many reasons it’s a bad rule, it’s worth spelling them out, while it's questionable that player safety is being greatly improved. (Sure, this is sort of old news … but it’s been bugging me for a while. Plus, it’s May. So let's discuss ...)
It’s one fewer way for teams to gain a competitive edge.
The Hawkeyes, with junior Miguel Recinos’ right leg doing a lot of the work, were outstanding in kickoff coverage in 2017. They ranked No. 6 nationally in return yards allowed per kickoff (17.08), thanks in part to artfully placed pop-fly kicks that often dropped into an opponent’s arms inside the 5-yard line. Recinos also boomed touchbacks on 32 of his 69 kickoffs.
That doesn’t happen by accident.
That’s coaches and players — often non-starters — working hard behind the scenes to develop strategy and perfect a craft that can give their defense a first down’s worth of field position.
“What it could possibly do is reward teams that aren’t very good at returns,” Woods said. “Automatically giving them the ball at the 25-yard line is sort of a cop-out.
“We spent a lot of time working on it. And it paid dividends for us. Then to me, it seems like we’re just giving teams an easy way out.”
It diminishes one of football’s most exciting plays.
Obviously, teams can still return a ball that’s looped high inside the 5 or 10, or even inside the end zone. But it’s unlikely to be a consistently smart play.
Starting at the 25 is basically two first downs shy of midfield. The smarter, less-desperate teams will be coached to accept turnover-free field position at the 25.
Hence, you'll eventually see fewer kick-return lotteries … which can provide some of the sport’s most entertaining swing plays.
Instead, you'll get more fair catches … perhaps tied with a kneel-down as the sport’s most boring play.
“Tell me a play that’s more exciting than a kick-return for a touchdown,” Woods contended. “Maybe I’m biased because I coach special teams, but I love kick returns. I love punt returns. What’s more exciting than that?”
There’s an unintended side effect coming.
The fair-catch rule has an obvious loophole: Squib kicks.
Crafty kickers might be inclined to try more of those … not to mention onside kicks, which — Woods pointed out — is a far more combustible setup for multiple, reckless football collisions.
“I’ll be honest with you: What’s more dangerous than a kickoff being an onside kick?” Woods said. “What they’ve done is … more people are going to try onside kicks.
“The other part that gets overlooked is the squib game. … The guy that’s going to field that ball is usually a defensive lineman, a tight end, a linebacker, a guy that’s normally not used to fielding the ball and carrying it. Not only that, he’s a little bit bigger, and that collision is going to happen a little bit sooner. That’s one of those things I don’t think they quite took into consideration.”
It’s stealing opportunity from non-starters.
In a sport that allows 85 full-ride scholarships at the FBS level … and with only 22 starters, not counting kickers … the math is notable. Less than 30 percent of scholarship players get regular on-field snaps.
Typically, the guys on return and coverage units are younger players gaining experience or older players who didn’t crack his side of the ball's top 11. For Iowa last season, those players included the likes of Dominique Dafney (a walk-on wide receiver), Amani Jones (now the starting middle linebacker), Ivory Kelly-Martin (a true freshman running back), Geno Stone (a backup safety) and Kevin Ward (a fifth-year backup linebacker).
They all expressed excitement to play on special teams. Now ... are they becoming warm bodies to take part in a largely ceremonial touchback?
“What I think our kickoff unit has done and what it can do for most teams is it gives guys that aren’t a true starter a role, for one,” Woods said. “And it also gives them an opportunity improve their skills as an offensive player or a defensive player. To me, that’s one of the biggest things that’s going to detract from the development of a player. What’s the motivation for a second- or third-team player now?”
Is there a way to make kickoffs integral … while protecting players?
Even with this new touchback rule, injuries will occur. You’ll see plenty of players running balls out of the end zone, trying to make a big play, and bodies will be flying around like always — and, more often than not, you’ll see them being tackled inside their own 25.
Woods would be fine with college football eliminating wedge blocking on returns, as the NFL is proposing. He also wouldn’t mind if kickoffs were booted from the 40-yard line (it’s currently the 35), which would eliminate an extra five yards of running starts — and encourage more pop-fly kickoffs.
A small wrinkle I would advocate: Let kickoffs that travel through the end zone be brought out to the 20 (instead of the 25), to reward kickers that can execute a booming success.
We’ll see how it plays out. I'm guessing you'll see more changes down the road.
But it sure feels like we’re moving closer to eliminating kickoffs — and just starting teams at the 25 every time — than preserving them.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.