Stanford coach David Shaw doesn’t want to limit returns. Christian McCaffrey returned kicks two years ago.

David Shaw gets it.

The idea behind one of the NCAA’s most controversial rule changes for 2018 — awarding a touchback on any kickoff that’s fair-caught inside the 25-yard line — is to make the game safer. What football coach wouldn’t want that?

But Stanford’s coach doesn’t necessarily like it.

“I don’t mind saying I’m not the biggest fan of the rule,” Shaw said. “I understand and appreciate the purpose and the intent behind it. Anything that is in an effort to make the game safer, I understand and to a certain degree applaud.

“(But) field position is the basis of this game. To fair-catch a ball and automatically move the ball up is difficult for me to take. We probably won’t take advantage of that.”

The Star surveyed five Pac-12 coaches about the new kickoff rule, and two were adamantly opposed to it: Shaw and Washington State’s Mike Leach.

Two coaches, Cal’s Justin Wilcox and Utah’s Kyle Whittingham, were still contemplating its merits. Washington’s Chris Petersen expressed his support, citing the safety factor that has driven significant changes to kickoffs in college football and the NFL.

The NFL is planning to take those changes several steps further than the NCAA has.

NFL owners will vote later this month on a proposal that includes eliminating the 5-yard head start kickoff coverage teams have had, as well as all “wedge” blocks.

The multipart plan emerged from a summit of league special-teams coaches, who met to try to address what remains a major concern. According to, NFL data showed that concussions were five times more likely to occur on kickoffs last season than any other play.

If the number of full-speed collisions can be reduced, the thinking goes, so too will the number of concussions and other injuries.

The NCAA did not release injury data when it announced its change. The organization did point out the obvious, noting that “fewer injuries occur during kickoffs that result in touchbacks than on kickoffs that are returned.”

“When they do studies, and it’s a higher percentage chance for injury on a certain play, we need to take a hard look at that and figure out how to help that situation,” Petersen said. “I think they have, and I think this is the first step towards it.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out. It’s all about making this game safer for the kids. If that’s one of the plays that’s going to help us, it’s a good rule.”

Kickoff’s demise already underway

Opponents of the new rule could argue that the NCAA already has taken successful steps to reduce the number of kickoff returns.

In 2012, the NCAA moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35. Additionally, as an incentive to down the ball in the end zone, touchbacks would place the ball at the 25 instead of the 20.

The number of touchbacks soared over the succeeding six seasons. During that span, 38.3 percent of kickoffs by FBS teams resulted in touchbacks. Over the previous five seasons — the NCAA moved the kickoff from the 35 to the 30 in 2007 — that figure was 13.9 percent.

There have been about 2,350 more touchbacks per season over the past six years than the previous five. Or, put another way, 2,350 fewer opportunities for players to get hurt.

Games involving the Arizona Wildcats have mirrored the national trends. Over the past six years, Arizona and its opponents have averaged 5.7 kickoff returns per game, with 52 percent of kickoffs resulting in touchbacks. The previous five years saw 8.4 returns per game with a 21.5 percent touchback rate.

Moving the kickoff 5 yards, and incentivizing touchbacks, has made a significant difference. So why tweak the rules even further?

As the NFL data shows, the kickoff remains the most dangerous play in a sport whose safety measures have come under increased scrutiny in recent years as more information about concussions has come to light.

The question facing the decision-makers in the NCAA and NFL is whether those safety concerns outweigh tradition and strategy.

The kickoff has been an integral component of the game. Yet we’ve arrived at a juncture in its history when multiple coaches have predicted the kickoff eventually will be eradicated.

“I have told our coaches, ‘Before we retire … I firmly believe you’re not going to see kickoffs,’ ” Texas coach Tom Herman told last month.

Regarding the change for 2018, Whittingham — who’s been heavily involved in Utah’s special teams throughout his tenure — said: “Obviously, the rule was made to eventually try to eliminate kickoffs.”

Making adjustments

Getting rid of kickoffs would make football safer, the data suggests. Would it make the sport better?

Leach and Shaw are among the coaches who don’t think so.

“There haven’t been many of these rule changes that haven’t done something to limit strategy,” Leach said, “even though they’re well intended.”

Shaw takes great pride in Stanford’s kick-return game. The Cardinal has had one of the top three kickoff returners in the Pac-12 in four of the past five seasons, including two league leaders: Christian McCaffrey in 2015 and Ty Montgomery in ’13. Those players and kickoff-return units helped Stanford win the conference in each of those seasons.

Most of the coaches surveyed said they were still figuring out what adjustments, if any, they would make to deal with the new touchback rule. It likely will deter teams from attempting high, short kicks that land at the 5- or 10-yard line.

“The bottom line is, there’s going to be a bunch of possessions starting at the 25-yard line,” Whittingham said.

That was the predominant outcome for Arizona’s opponents last season. Then-freshman kicker Lucas Havrisik blasted 63 of 93 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. His rate of 67.74 percent ranked 15th in the country.

The ability of kickers like Havrisik to produce touchbacks at a high rate with the ball teed up at the 35-yard line has turned the kickoff into something of an anticlimactic play. Fair catches inside the 25 won’t make it any more exciting.

But with an increased emphasis on player safety, it’s highly unlikely the NCAA or NFL will introduce rule changes to increase returns, as happened in 2007. Whether they like the new rules or not, coaches have to accept them.

“That’s what it is,” Cal’s Wilcox said. “We’re going to play by ’em.”


Michael is an award-winning journalist who has been covering sports professionally since the early '90s. He started at the Star in 2015 after spending 15 years at The Orange County Register. Michael is a graduate of Northwestern University.