CINCINNATI – The elimination of the high school football varsity kickoff may be just a matter of time.
While Ohio isn’t facing that possibility this season, new sub-varsity rules have clearly stoked discussion among coaches, administrators and fans about what may be an inevitable path.
Player safety continues to be widely analyzed at all levels of the game and while there is no data about injuries suffered as result of high school kickoffs in Ohio, Ohio High School Athletic Association administrators believe the new rules are a natural course of action.
Kickoffs are no longer permitted in freshman games, and they are only permitted in junior varsity games if both head coaches mutually agree in OHSAA contests.
Kickoffs are already not permitted in junior high games in Ohio. In games with no kickoffs, the ball will be spotted at the 35-yard line to start halves and after scores. The ball will be spotted at the 50-yard line after a safety.
Indiana and Kentucky do not have such kickoff rules at the sub-varsity levels like Ohio has implemented this season.
“I applaud any approach to making football a ‘safer’ game,” St. Xavier coach Steve Specht said. “If the OHSAA feels this is step towards that end I support it. We will adjust our approach to the rule changes and play to the best of our abilities within the established guidelines.”
The NFL and NCAA announced changes to their respective kickoff rules this past spring. The NCAA approved altering football’s kickoff rules to allow the receiving team to fair catch the kick inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback.
The high school game often follows rules changes from the college and pro levels especially when it’s based on safety concerns.
So is it inevitable the high school varsity kickoff will be curtailed or eliminated?
“As stuff rolls downhill and if that holds true in this, the answer has to be yes because that’s what they’ve done at the NFL and NCAA levels,” said Beau Rugg, an OHSAA Assistant Commissioner and the football administrator.
Ohio has a seat on the National Federation of State High School Association rules committee but the sub-varsity level decision was made by the OHSAA. Varsity sports must follow NFHS mandates.
"The NFHS Football Rules Committee and the NFHS Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) continue to review injury data on kickoffs at the high school level...to look at possible future rules changes if needed in order to minimize risk," said Bob Colgate, NFHS director of sports and sports medicine and liaison to the NFHS Football Rules Committee. "The Minnesota State High School League will be conducting an NFHS approved rules experiment this 2018 season dealing with the kickoff formations."
Rugg said there was discussion about eliminating the kickoff altogether at the junior varsity level in Ohio, but he doesn’t like to alter the strategy of the game. Rugg said eliminating kickoffs at the freshman level was a “no-brainer” since kickoffs aren’t allowed in junior high.
“I did have a feeling that there’s going to be coaches and (JV) programs out there that have (participation) numbers and want to work on this aspect in those games and I want to give them an opportunity to do that,” Rugg said.
The Southwest Ohio Conference voted Aug. 8 at its league meeting to eliminate kickoffs at the JV level.
The Greater Miami Conference and the Greater Catholic League South division plans to allow its JV coaches decide on kickoffs the Saturday morning of their games. Other conferences have considered their options at league meetings this month.
Area varsity head coaches have a mixed reaction to the new state rules.
“I study the game just as much as anybody else studies the game,” Mason coach Brian Castner said. “I hate the rule. I will be adamant about it. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous. I understand that the safety of the game needs to happen and all those things will happen because we are coaching and making it a safer game. But, don’t take a play out of the game that is such a big part of what we were about – the kickoff.”
Colerain coach Tom Bolden will advise his JV coaches to continue with kickoffs.
“It’s one of those things that I understand in terms of safety and things like that but if we as coaches instruct things correctly then the safety is OK,” Bolden said. “You hate to see something that fundamental being taken out of the game. It puts you in a position where it’s slim to none in terms of chances to win a ballgame like with an onside kick.”
Kings coach Andy Olds said football has never been safer. He is concerned younger high school players won’t have the proper instruction on kickoffs when they reach the varsity level.
“It’s like getting on a bicycle without training wheels,” Olds said. “We are going to put people on bikes and say, ‘Hey, go learn to ride’ or throw someone in the pool and tell them to swim. That’s kind of what we’re getting to. Sometimes we make attempts to make things safer. I would be a little bit concerned about that.”
La Salle coach Pat McLaughlin said the rule takes away some advantages of the kicking team such as the ability to kick in the end zone or place the ball with a high kick and pin the offense back.
“You are essentially giving the offense a first down and a half,” McLaughlin said. “I understand the safety aspect of the rule but those freshmen/JV players will have to participate in kickoffs at the varsity level so there may be a lack of preparation for those kids.”
However, Walnut Hills coach Gerry Beauchamp is in favor of the new OHSAA rules.
“I am completely for eliminating kickoffs at these levels,” Beauchamp said. “Our number one priority at Walnut is safety. As a player, back in the day, I probably would not have liked it, but now as a parent and coach, we need to protect our kids and the sport of football. At these levels, our kids should be focused on the fundamentals and learning the game. The varsity high school level and above is a little different because an important part of the game is the onside kick, so I don’t believe taking kickoffs out of the game should go beyond this.”
Elder coach Doug Ramsey agrees. He understands he’s in the minority opinion but the rule change doesn’t bother the longtime Panthers coach who is entering his 21st season at the school.
“We have to do more things for player safety,” Ramsey said. “We can say it hurts the essence of the game but if we don’t make the game safer there will not be a game. Coaches know it’s dangerous. No one ever wants to go live special teams in scrimmages so why should we do it with freshmen.”
Rugg said the OHSAA will monitor the coaches’ feedback to the new junior varsity kickoff rules among the 718 schools with football across the state.
“We need to see how everyone reacts and wants to gives us some data on how “Hey, we’re not developing kids well enough in this phase or whatever,” Rugg said. “And if that’s the case then we may attack it in a different way. I think if you really want to do that (have kickoffs) and that’s important to you then you have an opportunity to do that. That was something that didn’t want to eliminate.”