UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez believes the ultimate goal is to eliminate kickoffs entirely, and the NCAA certainly took a step in that direction as a new season nears.
The governing body for college sports changed the return rule so that any player who fair catches a kickoff inside the 25-yard line — even in the field of play — gives his team possession at the 25.
The NCAA changed the kickoff rule as a way to increase player safety, especially given the added scrutiny in recent years regarding the lingering effects of head injuries. The kickoff return is one of the more exciting plays in football but also one of the more dangerous.
“I think with the new rule, it’s a clear indication that they want to do something to eliminate the kickoff,” Sanchez said. “I hate the kickoff being eliminated. I think it’s such an impactful play. You think about Super Bowls and big-time college games, sometimes those breathtaking plays will change the course of a game. I know what they’re trying to do, but I’m a traditionalist. I hate it being gone.”
With the Rebels in preparations for the season, which begins Sept. 1 at Southern California, they are taking an approach that probably is being duplicated on practice fields throughout the Mountain West and beyond.
They are emphasizing sky and squib kicks, which require more finesse than power kicks into the end zone.
“It’s a little more difficult,” UNLV senior kicker Evan Pantels said. “You’ve got to take a little different approach on the ball, get on top of it a little bit. That type of ball is very hard to field, and that’s why I think we’ll utilize that rule and use that (kind of kick) more because a lot of those balls are bouncing around and more difficult to field and cause some turnovers.”
Pantels, who is competing with junior Hayes Hicken for the kickoff job, is more apt to try to drive the ball through the end zone when facing a return player capable of taking the ball to the other side of the field.
Another option is to increase the number of onside kicks.
“Some guys talk about doing them all the time,” Sanchez said. “I don’t know if we’re there yet. I think you sit down with your staff, and it’s a game-by-game conversation of what you think you need to do.”
More onside kicks intrigue San Diego State coach Rocky Long.
“If you’re really good on defense, you onside kick every time because no matter where they get the ball, tbey’re not going to score much,” said Long, who typically fields one of the Mountain West’s top defenses.
Long was asked how much guts it would take for a coach to onside kick every time.
“We’re getting ready to find out,” he said. “All of the coaching staffs in the country are discussing this.”
The new return rule has created additional special teams meetings in coaches’ offices throughout the country.
“You don’t have to have a great kicker anymore,” Long said. “You have to have a skilled kicker. He doesn’t have to kick it in the end zone. He doesn’t have to kick it out of the end zone. He’s got to be able to put it where you want him to put it.
“This is going to be really fun for the first year, because the first year, you’re going to get the personalities of the head coaches. After the first year, statistically they’ll tell you what to do.”
San Jose State coach Brent Brennan said he has a good idea how it will play out.
“In my conversations, most people are reserved to just fair catch a ball,” he said. “Most people don’t have average starting field position past the 25 on kickoff returns. So if I can guarantee that, all I have to do is fair catch it.”
Note — UNLV senior Bailey Laolagi is listed as a co-starter with junior Gabe McCoy at weakside linebacker, but Laolagi worked some in the middle during Saturday’s practice at Rebel Park.
“If you’re playing against a team that’s going to spread you out and throw it all over the yard, he could be a Mike (middle linebacker),” coach Tony Sanchez said. “If you’re playing a San Diego State that’s going to get downhill, he’s not your Mike. But he gives us flexibility. He’s the only guy that can play all three positions, so you’re going to see him flying all over the place.”
Junior offensive lineman Sid Acosta has shown similar versatility, playing left guard Friday and center Saturday.