It’s not that Bryant Fitzgerald needs kickoff returns to make a name for himself on the football field. The Avon High School senior already stars at outside linebacker and, if needed, can deliver hits as a running back. Indiana liked Fitzgerald’s versatility enough to offer him a scholarship, which he accepted in January.
But catch Fitzgerald in the right moment and he might say returning kicks ranks at the top of his favorite responsibilities in football. Take that away, and, well …
“I would be devastated,” the 6-foot, 195-pound Fitzgerald said. “Special teams is an element that is key to football. If they ever took that away, they’d take something out of the game that couldn’t be replaced. The game wouldn’t be the same.”
The kickoff, however, may be on its way to getting kicked to the curb.
In May, Pop Warner became the first national organization to eliminate kickoffs. The ban – implemented for the three youngest divisions (ages 10 and under) – is designed to reduce the number of high-impact, head-on collisions in games. The ball will be placed at the 35-yard line at the beginning of each half and after each score.
The trend extends beyond the youth level. In 2011, in an effort to produce more touchbacks, the NFL moved the kickoff from the 30- to the 35 yard-line. College football followed in 2012; additionally, a touchback on a kickoff resulted in the ball coming out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20 in college games.
The result on the professional and college level has been a significant drop in the number of returns. According to NFL.com, teams returned 80.1 percent of all kickoffs in 2010, the year before the rule change. In 2015, that number was nearly cut in half (41.1 percent). Another major NFL rule change this year will mimic the college game with touchbacks coming out to the 25-yard line.
So far, the National Federation for State High School Associations (NFHS) has not dramatically altered its kickoff rules. High school teams kick off from the 40-yard line, but kicks that cross the goal line are an automatic touchback and brought out to the 20.
“It’s a topic that is brought up to the (football rules committee) fairly regularly now,” Indiana High School Athletic Association Commissioner Bobby Cox said. “Some leagues (NFL and college) have moved the kickoff line up and basically the kicker is kicking it through the end zone and there is no return. That’s one way to cut down on the number of returns. So far there hasn’t been real support to abolish the kickoff at high school level.”
An informal survey of local high school coaches shows most favor keeping the kickoff as part of the game. Warren Central’s Jayson West is one of the few that wouldn’t mind seeing it eliminated.
“Most of the teams we play kick it in the end zone anyway,” he said.
Others, like Westfield’s Jake Gilbert, can see it from both sides.
“I have not seen any more injuries on the kickoff than any other play, but I do think it’s more dangerous due to the speed generated by the coverage team,” Gilbert said.
The Ivy League will move kickoffs to the 40-yard line this season as an experimental rule for conference games. In a release last month, the conference cited its own data showing kickoff returns accounted for 23.4 percent of concussions during Ivy League games despite representing only 5.8 percent of plays.
There have been other changes to kickoffs, at all levels. Last year, the NFHS passed a rule requiring at least four players on both sides of the kicker at the time of the kick in an effort to guard against teams loading up on a player receiving an onside kick. The NFL, beginning in 2011, only allows players on kickoff coverage a 5-yard running start. College and professional football have also outlawed wedge blocking on kickoff returns, a longtime staple of the sport.
All of these changes were made with safety in mind. But some traditionalists – while mindful of the need to evolve – wonder how much football can change while retaining the integrity of the game. Kickoffs, in addition to starting each half, can result in significant momentum changes. In the 2014 Class 6A championship game, Ben Davis trailed by 17 points when Jordan Wilkerson returned a kickoff 75 yards against Carmel. Ben Davis never looked back, going on to win 42-24.
“I have seen no evidence that statistically suggests that this is a substantially more dangerous part of the game than other scrimmage downs,” Fishers coach Rick Wimmer said. “I believe our leaders at the state and national level are working successfully to improve our rules, teaching techniques and injury protocols that have been effective and we should continue to do that. But that doesn’t mean we should make changes based simply on perceptions that are not based on evidence.”
There’s also the question of what to do with onside kickoffs. If the NFL could answer that question, New York Giants president John Mara said in March, the league would consider dropping the kickoff from the game completely.
As New Palestine coach Kyle Ralph points out, moving up the kickoff line could also result in more onside attempts and potentially more head-on collisions.
“I don’t think (moving kickoffs up) is a winning formula because onside kicks will provide the big impacts they may be looking to avoid,” Ralph said.
In Fitzgerald’s eyes, special teams wouldn’t be nearly as special without the kickoff. It’s become as much a part of his football experience as playing on offense or defense.
“I try to be great at it,” he said. “It takes a special skill. I always thought if you can win the special teams battle or do something to give your team an advantage in any way possible, then I wanted to do that.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.