The clothesline by Mekhi Brown in the College Football Playoff Championship Game just over three months ago. The explosive tackle by Reuben Foster on Leonard Fournette at the end of regulation in the 2014 Alabama win at LSU. Mack Wilson’s pro bono dental work on Texas A&M’s Speedy Noil at Bryant-Denny Stadium in 2016.
Those hits are part of the reason that kickoff returns are an endangered part of college people. For some people, they are emblematic of why kickoff returns should go. For others, those same plays are why kickoff coverage should stay.
It’s not just the returners who run a risk on kickoff returns. It’s also all those flying wedge blockers and wedge busters. The current environment is about protecting players from as many full speed hits as the game will allow, and the latest NCAA rules decision — allowing any kickoff fielded by fair catch inside the 25-yard line to come out to the 25 as a touchback — was made with that motive. But it also has yet another leveling effect on teams like Alabama, ones with abundant fast, strong athletes on coverage teams. Part of the Crimson Tide strategy, at least on some kickoffs, was to put the ball high and just short of the end zone and fly down with a dual purpose. First, if Alabama could stop an opposing returner inside the 25, that just meant more yardage that had to be gained against the Alabama defense. Second, if a Crimson Tide player could deliver one of those missile-warhead hits, there was a certain intimidation factor at play.
That’s why Nick Saban would like to have seen some compromise.
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