A minor rule change designed to eliminate cheap shots and reduce injuries has led to what is on track to be the best season for punt returners in nearly a half-century. With as many as four regular season games remaining for some teams, two players already have tied the Division I-A season record for most punt return touchdowns in a season and the average return is up 8.2 percent over a year ago.
After several violent hits last season, including more than a handful in which defenders leveled players waiting to catch punts, the NCAA Football Rules Committee adopted a change to toughen the penalty for violating the so-called two-yard "halo" area around punt returners.
Infringing on the halo had been a five-yard penalty, a small price to pay for the possibility of unnerving an opponent or making a momentum-changing play. To many coaches and players, the possibilities of creating a fumble with a jarring, well-timed hit or scaring an opponent into making future fair catches were well worth the risk of a five-yard penalty. Practicing the art of timing such hits, including the use of tackling dummies, was standard.
Now, though, a halo violation is a 10-yard penalty, with a 15-yard penalty and automatic ejection for a hard hit against a returner before the ball arrives. Any ejection also would carry a one-game suspension.
"The committee is intent on providing returners a measure of safety when they are in the vulnerable position of not seeing opponents coming at them while they are looking up for the ball," Big 12 senior associate director and rules committee chairman Donnie Duncan said in a statement announcing the change. "Coaches and members of the kicking team must understand the seriousness of violating the two-yard restricted area."
With the season in its final month, the rule change seems to have greatly reduced, if not eliminated, the cheap shots in which defenders simply take out skyward-looking returners. As Maryland special teams coach Ray Rychleski pointed out, often the outside players on most punt coverage units are their teams' best players and losing them for the rest of that game and another one would be a stiff penalty.
Not having to fear being hit early, most return men seem to have gained an extraordinary amount of confidence, perhaps leading to more big returns and more touchdowns. Maryland's Steve Suter and Kentucky's Derek Abney have tied the NCAA Division I-A record with four punt return touchdowns this season.
There was one touchdown per 33.7 punt returns in 2000 and one every 40.2 in 2001. This season, though, there has been one touchdown per 30.4 punt returns. Last season's average punt return was 9.84 yards; this season it is 10.65, which would be the highest season average since 1954.
The rule change "has given players a real sense of security that they can catch the football and have time to do something," Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr said at his weekly news conference this week. "I have seen a lot of balls caught this year that they didn't try to catch a year ago."
Suter, whose team plays 13th-ranked North Carolina State on Saturday, put it more succinctly. "Ain't nobody going to come down flying and trying to kill me," he said. "More punt returners are confident to catch the ball now because they're not going to get tanked."
Even if a punt is covered perfectly, Suter said, he could simply fall forward for a small gain instead of simply making a fair catch. Perhaps more importantly, with defenders worried about coming too close, Suter feels he can be the aggressor on punt returns. Two weeks ago, a Duke player was called for a halo violation on Suter's first punt return and the Blue Devils appeared wary trying to cover their next punt, which Suter took back 63 yards for a touchdown. Last week, a North Carolina player was called for a halo violation on Suter's 77-yard touchdown return.
"I'm going to have the first step nine times out of 10," Suter said. "I feel I have the advantage. Just try to get them off-balance and start scooting."
While Maryland's contingent thinks the rule change has had a sizable impact, Abney and Kentucky special teams coach Mark Nelson disagreed, saying they thought perhaps teams are paying more attention to special teams. Abney, a junior, had just one punt return as a freshman and averaged 9.6 yards last season with one touchdown in 22 attempts. This season he has exploded for 18.8 yards per return and four touchdowns in 25 attempts.
"I don't think it has anything to do with the halo rule," said Abney, noting that opponents have been flagged for halo rule infractions several times this season. "I think coaches are starting to realize how important special teams are. . . . It's something [second-year coach Guy Morriss] really wanted to emphasize. Coach [Hal] Mumme, before him, didn't really emphasize it."