Created: Thursday, August 16, 2012 11:11 p.m. CDT

Special teams adjusts to new kickoff rules

By Steve Nitz -
Sophomore Tommylee Lewis had two kick return touchdowns in 2011. (Rob Winner —

DeKALB — On the turf at Huskie Stadium, there's an "X" in the middle of the field on each of the 30-yard lines.

Sometime before NIU's first game in DeKalb on Sept. 8 against Tennessee-Martin, that "X" will be moved five yards, to the 35-yard line.

Just as the NFL did last season, in an effort to increase safety, the NCAA moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line for 2011, meaning NIU kickoff specialist Tyler Wedel and opposing kickers will be kicking with an additional five yards.

The NFL saw touchbacks increase in 2011, and there shouldn't be any doubt the NCAA will see the same thing. But there's other implications to consider as well.

Touchbacks have also been moved up five yards, to the 25-yard line, making a returner's decision to run or take a knee that much more difficult. Plus, members of the kickoff coverage team may not start more than five yards behind the 35-yard line. Huskies coach Dave Doeren said he would have his kickoff team 10-12 yards back in the past.

Doeren expects kickoff return team members to have a better opportunity to block would-be tacklers with that change. But that doesn't change the fact there should be more touchbacks.

"I don't know how many kicks we didn't chart that landed on the goal line that will now be five yards deep," Doeren said. "I would assume you'll have some more touchbacks. That's the biggest thing that changes."

Kick returners such as NIU sophomore Tommylee Lewis are also paying attention to things like hang time. It's much easier to return a line drive kick compared to one that stays up in the air.

NIU special teams coordinator Mike Uremovich said he'll tell his returners they need to take a touchback if the ball gets so far into the end zone. As to how far into the end zone that is, it changes week to week depending on different factors.

"We're ready to run it out and we're ready to take a knee," Uremovich said. "It just depends on the situation of the game and what [Doeren] wants to do."

More touchbacks means less of Lewis when it comes to returns. That could hurt NIU, as Lewis was second in the Mid-American Conference with a kickoff return average of 25.2 yards in 2011, not to mention his two touchdowns in the Huskies' 63-60 win over Toledo Nov. 2.

On the opposite end, Uremovich did say Wedel, who netted six touchbacks last year, has a strong leg, which should result in opposing teams consistently starting from the 25.

The college football world will get more of a sense in how the new rules affect the game Week 1 and throughout the season. In the end, there's nothing players and coaches can do about it, and there will probably be some adjustments teams will make.

"I don't feel any certain way about it," Lewis said. "You've got to do what you have to do."

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