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College Football Special Teams Strategy: Show No Mercy to the Rugby-Style Punter

A football coach’s fear of Brandon Boykin is the beginning of his wisdom, and, as Dawg2011 has noted, opposing coaches have wised up by employing the increasingly infamous "rugby-style" punt, which allows the punter to roll out to one side rather than drop straight back, thereby buying time for his teammates to get downfield and cover the punt. The kick is not likely to go as far as a Drew Butler boomer would, but the return man is far less likely to gain any ground once he takes possession, and the coverage team has a good chance of being able to watch the ball roll to a stop before downing it.

Is there a way to negate the advantage the punting team gains by adopting this strategy? Actually, in a welcome instance of the NCAA rules committee making a salutary change to the guidelines governing the sport, there is:

Let’s start with the basics:

Rule 2-15-1-a: Kicking the ball is intentionally striking the ball with the knee, lower leg or foot.
Rule 2-15-2: A punt is a kick by a player who drops the ball and kicks it before it strikes the ground.
Rule 2-15-7-a: A scrimmage kick made in or behind the neutral zone is a legal kick by Team A during a scrimmage down before team possession changes.
Rule 2-16-10-a: A scrimmage kick formation is a formation with at least one player seven yards or more behind the neutral zone, no player in position to receive a hand-to-hand snap from between the snapper’s legs, and it is obvious that a kick may be attempted.

Leaving aside the fact that the NCAA needs a lesson in why one should use the Oxford comma all the time, we’re now clear that a punt is a legal form of scrimmage kick made from a scrimmage kick formation. Now we turn to the fellow who will be doing the kicking:

Rule 2-26-3-a: The kicker is any player who punts, drop kicks or place kicks according to rule. He remains the kicker until he has had a reasonable time to regain his balance.
Rule 9-1-4-a: When it is obvious that a scrimmage kick will be made, no opponent shall run into or rough the kicker or the holder of a place kick.

A kicker---that includes a punter---is protected from being run into or roughed when it is obvious he will attempt a scrimmage kick---that includes a punt---as long as he’s the kicker, which he remains until he has had the opportunity to regain his balance. Note, though, the exception to the latter rule (with citations and obfuscatory punctuation omitted):

Rule 9-1-4-a-5-b: The kicker’s protection under this rule ends when he carries the ball outside the tackle box before kicking.

The tackle box is defined by Rule 2-34 as "the rectangular area enclosed by the neutral zone, the two lines parallel to the sidelines five yards from the snapper, and Team A’s end line." If he stays behind the line of scrimmage and within five yards on either side of the snapper, the punter is inside the tackle box; if he moves up into the neutral zone, or if he moves more than five yards in the direction of the sideline, he’s a ballcarrier.

In fact, the "Approved Ruling" on Rule 9-1-4 in the back of the NCAA Rulebook states unambiguously that "[t]here is no kicker until the ball is kicked." That makes sense, when you think about it; the rule isn’t designed to protect kickers just because, e.g., placekickers tend to be smaller than the average Division I-A college football player. Rather, the rule is there to protect holders, placekickers, and punters when they are in especially vulnerable positions. The rule is strictly a safety measure, not unlike the rule protecting a defenseless player. If a kicker (a term that includes punters) runs a fake, bobbles the snap and attempts to recover his own fumble, or even stands there with the ball and makes no move to put his foot into the pigskin, he’s not a kicker under the rule, so the receiving team is under no obligation to treat him as if he were wearing a green practice jersey.

That same Approved Ruling includes the following illustration:

Punter A22 is 15 yards behind the neutral zone when he catches the long snap, sprints to his right at an angle toward the line of scrimmage, and runs outside the tackle box. He then stops and punts the ball, and is immediately hit by a diving B89. RULING: Legal play, no foul by B89. A22 loses his roughing or running into protection by carrying the ball outside the tackle box.

The bottom line, then, is this: Our special teams players need to be acutely aware when lining up to receive a punt of the point that marks the 15th foot from the snapper to the sideline along the line of scrimmage. If the punter rolls out and crosses that point, he is, quite literally, not a punter under NCAA rules. He can and should be introduced to the landscaping with celerity, asperity, and severity. The rules of college football specifically and explicitly provide that there is an instant at which a rugby-style punter is a ballcarrier rather than a kicker; at that instant, he should be brought down, and brought down hard, so that opposing coaches will go back to punting properly when facing the Georgia Bulldogs’ return team.

Go ‘Dawgs!