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Air Force football unlikely to be impacted from rules changes in two areas where Falcons differ from many teams

April 14, 2018 Updated: April 14, 2018 at 7:26 pm
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Linebacker Grant Ross and the Air Force football team run onto the field at Falcon Stadium on the Air Force Academy. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Air Force football is known for cut blocks on offense and touchbacks aided by thin air in the kicking game, but rules changes in those areas are unlikely to bring a significant impact for the program.

The change most noticeable to fans will come on kickoffs.

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel announced Friday that it had approved the rules committee’s recommendation to allow a fair catch on kickoffs made inside the 25-yard line, with the ball being placed at the 25. Whereas before only kicks in the end zone could be downed and taken to the 25, now any kick fielded inside the 25 comes with that option.

The change is an attempt to reduce the number of kickoff returns, which because of the running start are among the most violent plays in the sport.

The impact of the change, particularly for Air Force, figures to be minimal.

Last year the Falcons produced touchbacks on 50.7 percent of their kickoffs. Army and Navy, playing without the benefit of high altitude, had touchback percentages of 30 percent and 24.3 percent, respectively.

However, even with the disparity in touchbacks, Air Force opponents started, on average, at the 24.7-yard line after kickoffs. Army opponents averaged the 24.5 and Navy foes the 25.7. So, the end result was virtually identical and unrelated to the number of touchbacks.

The new fair catch rule might result in a slight improvement in overall average starting field position because teams will be less likely to risk being stopped short of the 25. But Air Force, as shown, is already playing with higher touchback percentages and so changes will impact others more than it.

Another key rules change involved low blocks, as the committee barred any blocks below the waist beyond 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. It also stipulated that any block not coming from an interior lineman in that zone, must come from the front.

Air Force frequently blocks below the waist on the interior, making up for its size disadvantage by cutting down bigger foes and freeing up space for its quick-hitting running game. Those blocks will remain legal. The Falcons were already instructing players not to go low downfield.

“No issues,” an assistant said when asked about the change.

This isn’t to say Air Force won’t occasionally be flagged for an illegal block, but the new rule shouldn’t disproportionately impact the Falcons.

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