College football will kick off with a new kickoff this season, and Southeastern Conference coaches aren't really sure how it will work.
Because they have a higher level of potential injury than scrimmage downs, kickoffs are being moved from the 30- to the 35-yard line with the objective of ensuring more touchbacks and fewer collisions. Teams that receive the kickoff in the end zone have more incentive to accept the touchback, because the ball now comes out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20.
"All these rules are geared towards player safety, and I think that's the number one thing we should always evaluate in terms of our game," Alabama coach Nick Saban said at SEC media days. "Obviously with the kickoff being moved up, we'll probably see less kickoff returns."
That is the early consensus, but not every SEC school may choose to boom it into the back of the end zone time and time again. Florida's Caleb Sturgis had 10 touchbacks as a junior last season while kicking off from the 30, and Gators coach Will Muschamp is looking for ways to get his promising defense better starting field position than the 25.
"We have talked about some sky-kick situations as far as trying to pin them down," Muschamp said. "We do run well, and that's why we're good on special teams. We've talked about trying to directional kick the ball with height and see if we can't pin them back even farther.
"That's something we worked through in spring and talked about a lot and repped a little bit. We've had our kickers working on that, and we will do that again in fall camp."
SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said a lot of league coaches worked on the new kickoff rule this spring. Shaw is very interested to see how it plays out and added that NCAA rules committee members aren't sure how it will develop and are "very interested to watch."
Another kicking change of note could reduce or even eliminate the onside-kick attempt where the kicker drives the ball into the ground in order to pop it up.
In previous years, if the popped-up kick went beyond 10 yards, it became a free ball and opened the possibility of significant collisions. Now the receiving team will be afforded an opportunity to catch the hop just like it was an airborne kick.
Shaw believes one-hop kicks will be taken out of the game, and Vanderbilt coach James Franklin expects squib kicks to return en masse.
"It's going to be interesting to see how each coach uses these rule changes to their advantage and what coaches maybe aren't prepared for the significance of some of these rule changes as well," Franklin said. "The most important thing is that we're making decisions in the best interest of the student-athlete and for the SEC and college football as a whole."