Caitlyn Tam/UGA
It will be interesting to see how Georgia's Mecole Hardman adjusts to the NCAA's new kickoff return rule, which allows players to call for a fair catch inside the 25-yard line.

New kickoff rule will take some getting used to for Bulldogs, all of us

ATHENS — There’s no play in football that’s as alternately exciting or boring as the kickoff, depending on what kind of personnel a team has. A great kick returner or a big-legged kicker can be a powerful weapon.

Georgia was pretty good on both fronts last year, with Rodrigo Blankenship booming most of his kickoffs out of the end zone and Mecole Hardman tantalizing the masses with hair-raising returns. But a new rule in college football will affect them both this season.

Starting this season, a returner can call for a fair catch inside the 25-yard line and it will result in a touchback. The rule change was approved by the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel this past Friday. The move was made in an effort to curtail injuries.

The hope is that the rule will result in fewer returns and more touchbacks. That’s why the NFL moved up kickoffs to the 35-yard line from the 30 in 2011.

It promises to have a profound effect on the game — or not. It really depends on how effective your kicker is.

In the Bulldogs’ case, they have Blankenship on their sideline. The junior kicker was one of the best in the business last year. Sixty-seven of his 94 kickoffs – or 71.3 percent – resulted in touchbacks, which shattered the school record previous held by College Football Hall of Fame member Kevin Butler.

So the anticipation is it won’t represent much of a difference for Georgia. Smart indicated it’s not going to initiate a radical change for the Bulldogs in terms of their strategy on kickoff coverage.

“We’re not going to change anything,” Smart said Saturday. “We’re going to prepare for it. Higher, shorter kicks will be fair caught. If we don’t think we can get to the 25, we’ll be better off fair-catching it. A lot of it depends on the what type of kicker you’re facing.”

That’s the other side of the equation. Hardman was one of the SEC’s best returners last season. He averaged 25.3 yards and, as every Georgia fan will tell you, was a whisker away from breaking several returns for touchdowns. Alas, he never did.

I’ll have to see what this looks like this fall on a Saturday-to-Saturday basis before I decide exactly how I feel about it. In the past, I would’ve called myself kind of a football purist. I didn’t like it when they started flagging head-hunting safeties for targeting when they hit receivers high and hard. That, I reasoned, was the price of trying complete a pass over the middle.

But then I had a little boy that likes to play football. You review the concussion statistics in football and read about the long-term effects of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that has been found in dozens of former NFL players, and you start to think maybe we’ll just stick to tennis and golf.

That’s why you won’t hear Smart complaining about this new rule. Like the rest of us, he’s curious to see how it works in games. Otherwise, though, you won’t hear him complaining about it.

“It’s a dangerous play,” Smart said. “If you track kickoffs, the rules committee has statistics on it and will tell you, concussions are a little bit higher, there’s a few more injuries there. … You’ve got guys running 40 yards into each other. If they say it’s safer, I’m obviously in support of safety. I think anything you can do to make players safer it’s a wise decision.”

But it is a change and changes always require adjustments.

It won’t be much of one for Blankenship. Smart said they’ll still tell him to blast the ball out of the end zone if he can on every kickoff.

But for Hardman and Elijah Holyfield and whoever else lines up back deep for the Dogs this year, it will take some getting used to.

“That’ll be interesting because there’s no kid that’s ever sat back there on a kickoff and waved fair catch on the 1-yard line,” Smart said. “He’s going to have to make that decision now.”