Coaches differ on idea of eliminating kickoffs

Big plays on kickoffs have been both good and bad for Dabo Swinney during his tenure at Clemson.

The good? Swinney was blessed to have a player such as C.J. Spiller, who brought back a school and NCAA-record seven for touchdowns during his time as a Tiger.

The bad? Allowing an onside kick recovery and a kickoff return for a touchdown against Alabama in a 45-40 loss in the national championship last January.

Despite the two plays that helped doom his team’s title hopes, Swinney isn’t ready to kick the kickoff to the curb.

The Ivy League announced last week that it will move kickoffs from the 35-yard line to the 40-yard line in conference games this season in an effort to enhance player safety. A study conducted by the league revealed that kickoff returns account for 23.4 percent of concussions in games, despite representing only 5.8 percent of overall plays.

The experimental rule change will provide additional concussion and kickoff return data that will be evaluated at season’s end.

NCAA Division I football rules committees also have discussed the potential elimination of kickoffs as a way to reduce injuries.

“I wouldn’t be for that at all,” Swinney said during last week’s ACC Kickoff in Charlotte. “I guess it’s serious if people are talking about it. I would hate that.”

So, too, would N.C. State coach Dave Doeren.

“I just would hate to see what football would look like without it, personally,” Doeren said. “If the intent is to prevent injury, I’m all for that, but let’s look at the different reasons of why they’re happening, make sure we understand why we’re making a rule change so drastic, because that would change the game quite a bit from a field position standpoint.

“Personally, I enjoy that part of the game a lot. I think every kid that signs up to play football understands what it is. All games start with a kick one way or the other. That would change the game quite a bit.”

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, despite the presence of DeVon Edwards, one of the nation’s top kickoff return specialists, would be more receptive to change.

“I think it could be a good move,” Cutcliffe said. “I’ve watched kickoff coverages and returns with grimaces at times on my face. There is no question that play is the play where the highest-speed impacts occur. I admire (Edward’s) courage and toughness. But as a football coach and a person who cares a lot about student-athletes, I think we’ve got to really look at this play.”

Former Air Force Academy coach Fisher DeBerry said Monday that he can fully understand both lines of thinking on the issue.

“It really needs to be studied,” he said. “I know what they’re thinking about – the safety of the players – and I’m all for that. Common sense tells you that the speed you have going downfield is more of a factor on kickoffs, so it probably has some merit.

“But it could also take away from some kids’ playing time. Some kids like that challenge, the excitement of going downfield and trying to be first to the ball carrier. It’s one of the most unsung areas of the game.”

In Swinney’s experience, he’s had more players injured via weird non-contact plays and drills during seven-plus seasons as Clemson’s head coach, including quarterback Deshaun Watson’s torn ACL in 2014.

Cornerback Adrian Baker suffered a torn ACL last spring during a non-contact, one-on-one drill.

“I’ll be honest with you, most of our injuries have been non-contact,” Swinney said Monday during an interview with ESPN Radio.

“We’ve made great strides based on things that we’ve learned through the game to make this game better and safer, and I think we always have to do that. But at the end of the day, it’s football, and to take away the kickoff, that’s a huge part of the game. They’re game-changing plays.”- by Scott Keepfer, Anderson Independent-Mail (South Carolina)