Varsity - The Official Digital Magazine of Wisconsin Athletics

Varsity - March 1, 2012

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Bielema says safety behind rule changes LUCAS AT LARGE MIKE LUCAS • UWBADGERS.COM L ong before the legislation came to a vote, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema was an activist in terms of promoting safety in col- lege football; especially on kickoff return and coverage units. The more data Bielema exam- ined on the frequency and types of injuries that were occurring because of scary full-speed colli- sions on special teams, the more he pushed for changes. "If you are truly looking out for the well-being of a player and his safety,'' he said, "there's no ques- tion that something had to change. When I started looking at the data, it was glaring.'' As a first-year member of the NCAA's Football Rules Committee, Bielema was able to take an active role and contribute to the process by helping shape some of the rec- ommended changes. "It was very enlightening,'' said Bielema, one of three Football Bowl Subdivision representatives on the 12-person committee. "Ev- erything was dedicated to making the game safer.'' Starting with the 2012 season, college teams — like NFL teams — will kick off from the 35-yard line instead of the 30. Plus, all touch- backs will be moved to the 25-yard line instead of the 20. That's to discourage returns. At the pro level, there have been fewer returns without compromis- ing scoring. There have been fewer injuries, too. That's the point, even if it comes at the expense of an 10 » VARSITY MARCH 1, 2012 exciting kickoff return. "If you have a special player back there,'' Bielema observed, "like the Chicago Bears' (Devin Hester), a really unique guy, maybe you're going to run the risk of bringing it out.'' But how many college coaches will be willing to take a risk know- ing that if the return specialist takes the ball three yards deep in the end zone, he needs to run 28- plus yards to improve field posi- tion? "If you are truly looking out for the well-being of a player and his safety,'' Bielema said, "there's no question that some- thing had to change." "You're going to get more coach- es,'' Bielema said, "thinking, 'I'll just accept the touchback.''' When weighing all options, he added, consider the potential nega- tives from returning a kickoff: 1) the risk of a fumble, 2) the risk of a penalty, 3) the risk of a return fall- ing short of the 25. What about the possibility of kicking teams trying to pin an of- fense deep in its own territory with a high, directional kick that would force a return but potentially limit the return yardage? "It's still risk versus reward,'' Bielema said. "In the NFL, they have 32 of the best kickers in the world and they were still kicking the ball into and out of the end zone last season.'' Another rule change for 2012 will prohibit the players on the punt return unit (or receiving team) from attempting to block a punt by leaping over the blockers in the three-man shields. "We've all held our breath,'' Bielema said, speaking for his coaching fraternity brothers, "when guys come running into the shield formation on punts and they leap and land on their heads.'' Bielema and Air Force's Troy Calhoun are the only FBS head coaches on the Football Rules Committee, which had its rec- ommendations approved by the NCAA's Playing Rules Oversight Panel. Bielema would like to see a few more safety-related changes at least considered in the future. "We've seen several clips of quarterbacks that were running, traditional non-runners,'' he said, "and when they went to slide at the end of their run, they were still get- ting nailed. "To me we need to protect our quarterbacks a little better in those running situations. I think the NFL rule — which allows for a feet-first slide — would be a nice one to incorporate.'' Identifying a starting quarter- back will be his mission this spring. Practice starts on March 22.

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