Moments before West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen kicked off day two of Big 12 Media Days, Greg Burks, conference coordinator of football officials, approached the podium to announce several key rule changes ahead of the 2018 college football season.
The NCAA operates on a two-year cycle, according to Burks. On even-numbered years, the committee is not restricted to what it discusses, while it focuses on player safety during odd-numbered years.
“The NCAA has significant changes this year. You are either a rules person or you're not, and if you are, there's a lot to look at this year,” Burks said.
Burks spoke on topics ranging from uniform requirements and player safety to rules that are intended to speed up the game, a large issue facing the conference after several Big 12 games neared the four-hour mark.
In a continuous attempt to prevent serious injuries during kickoffs, Burks announced the new free kick and fair catch rule. This states that if a player opts to call for a fair catch anywhere inside the 25-yard line, the receiving team will begin its drive from the 25.
“All of the data that we have says that we have more injuries on kickoffs because of the distance that players are running,” Burks said. “So the Rules Committee is trying to figure out how to write the rules so we still have balance in the game without doing away with kickoffs and provide safety for the receiving team.”
Burks said he wants to keep kickoffs to allow teams to attempt onside kicks, but feels this new rule will encourage kickers to send the ball through the endzone for a touchback, thus preventing any major collisions or serious injuries. This also changes how coaches will approach this facet of special teams, however.
“I think anything that we can do to improve the safety of our game, I’m all for,” Texas head coach Tom Herman said. “Strategically, it’s all going to depend on, as the return team, how dynamic are you at that position and on that team. If you’re really good, that’ll determine the hang time of kickoff.”
Not all teams are as fond of this new rule, especially teams such as Kansas State, which have benefited from pushing their opponents’ backs against the wall with poor starting field position.
“We’ve addressed it, talked about it,” Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder said. “The biggest issue for us is going to be, ‘What can our kicker do?’ We lost our kickoff man, so we have to learn what our kickoff guy can do consistently. I don't favor letting people fair catch and putting the ball at the 25. Historically, our opponents’ starting field position is much less than the 25-yard line, which means we’ve gained an advantage when we kickoff more often than not.”
In addition, the NCAA will enforce a new 40-second play clock after every touchdown.
“I think, once this is implemented, we will see a little bit of time gain here in between scores and the extra point,” Burks said. “We spend a lot of time trying to make the game move as expediently as we can. … This is an attempt to make that happen. After a touchdown, the play clock will be set to 40 and will run immediately.”
Aside from game-specific rule changes, officials will also be cracking down on uniforms. Specifically, players will face new requirements for pant length and jersey length.
In recent history, players got away with wearing their pants above the knee cap. Burks admitted that officiating crews grew a bit too lenient on this issue. Now, however, if a players’ pant length fails to cover the knee, officials will send them out of the game until the uniform violation is fixed.
Along with pant length, the NCAA also ruled that mid-length, crop top-like jerseys are no longer allowed. Expect to see officials strike down these common style choices from last season.
“We're going to enforce pretty stringently these rules, and I would anticipate, within the first week or two, we may be seeing a few players sent off,” Burks said. “But I think, after the first couple of weeks, everybody hopefully will get on board and it won't become an issue.”