Central Florida cornerback Aaron Robinson laid motioneless on the field Thursday night after the Knights' opening kickoff. Robinson was covering the kickoff as UCF kicked to UConn. Huskies wide receiver Keyion Dixon returned the ball 16 yards out of the endzone when Robinson's struck him at an odd angle.
It was a reminder of why the NCAA changed kickoff rules before the 2018 season. Kickoffs have become one of the most dangerous aspects of college football, and the NCAA is doing what it can to make it safer before eliminating it entirely.
The new rule allows a team to call for a fair catch anywhere inside the 25-yard line. They would then get the ball on the 25. The goal is to ultimately create fewer kickoff returns in a game.
The rule change is a tricky one for someone like Nebraska special teams coordinator Jovan Dewitt. He fully supports it from a player safety perspective, but he also understand it will change how teams approach kickoffs.
“I think it fundamentally changes the game, to be honest with you," Dewitt told Hail Varsity. "I am 100 percent for any rule that is pro-player safety. I’m a firm believer in that, but I do believe you take an element out of the game when you change the structure of when you can get the ball and when you can’t get the ball. Football is such a game of field position, so you’re fundamentally changing how the game is going to be played and how it is going to be attacked not only from a special teams perspective. It’s also going to affect how we attack it on offense and how we attack it on defense, so it’s not just a special teams play.
"It’s a game-changing deal.”
The problem is how dangerous kickoffs have become. It's difficult to quantify, only because the data varies from team-to-team. It also varies depending on the college level versus professional.
Interestingly enough, the college data is a little more favorable toward keeping kickoffs.
“We’ve been gathering data on kickoffs for several years now and the thinking was that we have most of our injuries on kickoffs," Big Ten Head of Officials Bill Carollo said. "The NFL data says there are more injuries on kickoffs. The college data actually says something a little different. It’s about a typical play. The kickoff is just slightly more than an average play, but I’d put it in the same category. It’s pretty typical but the injuries that happen on kickoff are usually more serious than the normal plays from scrimmage. A lot of that has to do with the running starts."
And it's those running starts that have led to more and more targeting calls in college football. The variety of speeds coming down the field and the number of players coming from different directions only makes it more problematic.
"We have a high number of targeting calls on special teams because they’re going lots of different speeds down the field, coming from different directions," Carollo said. "It’s different from snapping at the line of scrimmage and sweeping to the right or left where everyone knows who is in front of you and who you have to block. On kickoff, there are a lot of blindside blocks and when you have a blindside block that goes high, it invariably is with force and probably a targeting call.
"Those are the kind of plays we’re trying to eliminate and trying to protect that receiver catching that ball.”
College football isn't the only one making changes to kickoffs. The NFL has made its own changes. In the NFL's case, the kicking team is no longer allowed get a running start before the kicker kicks the ball.
Dewitt planned to watch a a couple of NFL preseason games to see how teams were handling the rule change at the professional level. While their kickoff rule differs from the college rule, Dewitt still thought it would be helpful to observe.
Junior Caleb Lightbourn is the individual handling kickoffs for Nebraska in 2018. Lightbourn has been the Huskers' starting punter for two years, and will also retain those duties this season. Adding kickoffs to Lightbourn's resume with the rule change has made things a little interesting for Dewitt.
So, how will Nebraska approach kickoff now?
"I think it’s dependent on a couple of things. Who are you facing, how dangerous are their return guys and how physical and how good is your kickoff team?" Dewitt said. "You kind of want to base it on personnel, whether you’re going to go for the touchback or if you’re going to pin them in a certain area. It’s really going to go on a game-by-game basis, but it really is a unique deal.”
Except maybe not.
"Coach Dewitt and I agreed to kick it out of the back as often as possible, which isn’t hard for me unless there is a lot of wind," Lightbourn said. "Just making sure I kick a clean ball and get it out of the back.”
While it feelsl like a big change has been made in college football, over 40 percent of current kickoffs already result in touchbacks. Dewitt doesn't know how that number will change with the new rule but time will be the ultimate judge, especially when it comes to injury prevention.
"I think they’ll have to have the rule for a year or two to see if there is a definitive difference between collisions and concussions and things like that, or does it affect the game and can we adapt and move on," Dewitt said. "I think every time there is a massive change to the game like that, coaches and the game develop.”
Carollo can't say one way or the other if kickoffs are on their way out. He hopes the new rule change can help prevent it ultimately being eliminated, but he can't promise anything one way or the other.
Central Florida's Robinson gave the thumbs up as he left the field Thursday night, a positive sign in a scary moment. It's injuries like those that Carollo would like to prevent. He calls the new rule a "stepped approach" in figuring out what's best, especially because he knows there are plenty of people who still like traditional kickoffs.
Lightbourn is one of those people. He wants the game to be safer, but he'd miss kickoffs if they were gone.
"Eliminating kickoff is almost eliminating the hype for a game to start," Lightbourn said. "There’s a lot of hype to say, ‘OK, it’s kickoff between the Huskers and the Zips.’ It’s a staple so if they took it out, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to me.”
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.