FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson understands the new kickoff rules in place for 2012.
He also realizes what it probably means: The opportunity to return kicks could diminish sharply across the country this season.
But the senior, who has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, joked that fielding the ball in the endzone wouldn’t deter him this season.
“It’s just means me bringing it out of the end zone,” Johnson said. “I’m just going to have to bring some out of the end zone. That’s the only impact it’s going to have. …
“That means there’s going to be some records broken when I return some.”
The NCAA, in efforts to reduce the risk of injuries from kickoff collisions, has moved the ball from the 30-yard line to the 35 for kickoffs this season. In addition, the ball will be placed at the 25-yard line after touchbacks, moving up five yards from the previous spot at the 20. Players on kickoff teams must begin no more than five yards from the 35-yard line, too, in an effort to limit a running start on coverage.
The new rules are similar to those in place in the NFL, which has done more in the way of promoting player safety recently. The changes are expected to lead to an increased amount of touchbacks on kickoffs, leaving programs to re-evaluate their gameplans on special teams as they prepare for the season.
Arkansas special teams coordinator Steve Caldwell said it’s something the Razorbacks began working on as soon as the changes were announced. He said they’ve set their strategy on both sides, beginning with kicker Zach Hocker.
“We’re going to try to kick the ball in the end zone and give them no chance for a return,” Caldwell said earlier this preseason. “Obviously, there will be some days where the wind will be in our face, so we’ll have to make dang sure we have got great coverage because it won’t go in there.”
Arkansas is confident Hocker’s leg will send the ball deep enough into the end zone to induce touchbacks most of the time. He kicked the ball from the 30-yard line 93 times last season and 40 of them (43. percent) resulted in touchbacks.
Caldwell said not every team has a kicker who can reach the end zone consistently, though, leaving chances for returns. Others may plan for pooch kicks or other short kickoffs aimed to keep the ball in play and pin teams inside the 25-yard line.
“Coaches know how valuable every inch is, how valuable that real estate is,” Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said during Southeastern Conference Media Days in July. “So if you can pin them inside the 10 or 15 with some kind of kick or coverage, you want to do that, no doubt about it.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how each coach uses these rule changes to their advantage, what coaches maybe aren’t prepared for the significance of some of these rule changes as well.”
Either way, Arkansas believes it has a valuable weapon on kickoff returns with Johnson and hopes he’ll get plenty of opportunities this season.
Johnson has cemented his spot among the most decorated kick returners in school history. Johnson holds the school record for career kickoff returns (102), career kickoff return yards (2,475) and is ranked fifth in career kickoff return average (24.3 yards). The senior recorded the best return of his career last season, breaking away for a 98-yard touchdown against South Carolina.
He has one kickoff return touchdown in each of his three full seasons at Arkansas.
“I think with a threat back there like Dennis, that’s going to be something that every team will have to adjust to,” Caldwell said. “They might say, ‘We’re not going to take a chance kicking it to him.’ Everybody will have a different philosophy, I’m sure.”
Johnson hopes opponents plan to keep the ball in play when he is back to return a kick this season. But Johnson won’t be deterred if they don’t, believing there will be plenty of chances to return kicks even if he’s backed into the endzone.
“It’s not going to slow me down any,” Johnson said. “They’ll have to kick it out of the end zone for me not to bring it out. If they kick it out of the end zone, that’s going to stop me. But if they kick it five yards deep, it’s coming out.”