Football has been under scrutiny due to its inherent physicality and potential for injury, but St. Mary’s High coach Jamie Young feels strongly that measures can be made to lessen those safety concerns.
That’s why Young is among a handful of coaches in Oregon who are part of a crusade to abolish kickoffs and punts at the sub-varsity levels, especially for those schools in the lower classifications.
“I just don’t believe taking the kicking game out of sub-varsity games is going to limit the development of a player,” Young said Monday. “In fact, I’d argue it’s something better for the sport because we have to recognize there are parents that love and care about their kids, and we certainly do too as coaches, and you don’t want kids out on plays where they haven’t had a chance to rep enough and potentially start getting freaked out about playing football when faced with some of those high-risk situations.”
As such, Young was part of a group that pushed the Oregon School Activities Association to implement an experimental rule this year that allows schools to mutually agree to ban kickoffs and/or punts for any sub-varsity game (freshman or junior varsity levels).
When teams take advantage of the rule, instead of going through a kickoff where players crash into one another on the run — often at full speed — the football is simply placed at the 35-yard line to start the offensive team’s possession.
When it comes to punts, all the team has to do is let the head official know of their intention and then the ball is marched 35 yards upfield and placed down instead of going through the actual kicking and returning motions.
“There’s a lot of us that like the rule, it’s a good rule,” said John Campbell, commissioner of the Rogue Valley Football Officials Association. “I think for one thing it speeds the game up and kids get more snaps. Also, it seems that studies have shown the biggest cases of injuries in football are on punts and kickoffs, so it helps on that end.”
In an interesting caveat to the rule, a team that is trailing and just scored has the option — in the fourth quarter only — to place the ball at their own 40-yard line as a replacement for an onside kick and remain on offense so long as they keep getting first downs.
“I have a feeling that there will be a push for this rule moving forward, I really do,” said Campbell of the statewide experiment. “But it will probably be at the lower levels because I don’t think you’ll get it through with the varsity levels. I think it’s in line with college kickoffs where you can fair catch the ball from anywhere and it comes up to the 25, and the NFL rule where they’ve moved kickoffs closer. All football levels are looking at ways to make the game safer.”
Count Eagle Point head coach Seth Womack and Crater head coach Randy Waite as others who believe in the value of eliminating the kicking game at the sub-varsity levels, and South Medford High played a JV game last week against McMinnville that adopted the rule for punts only.
The rule is purely optional this year, mind you, so it’s not universally being done at the sub-varsity level in Oregon.
“I think it’s a great idea,” said Womack. “I can’t speak for all schools but we get so many kids that come in as freshmen or JV players that have never played before. Here at Eagle Point, I’m still beating the halls to get kids to come out every day. Not having to spend a lot of time on special teams with our sub-varsity kids allows us to coach more of the fundamental basic skills they’re going to need at the varsity level.”
Young said he and Illinois Valley head coach Bruce Reece came to an agreement last season to eliminate the kicking game from their sub-varsity matchup and the results were so positive he was compelled to bring it to the attention of the OSAA in the offseason.
“A lot of the reason why we we’re in this position as far as looking at special districts for football is because there’s concern about football numbers dropping and concern, rightly so, about how do we continue to make the game safer,” said Young. “This to me is a great tangible step of saying here’s what we’re doing because we recognize the evolution of the game and evolution of a player and their development. With this, you’re getting a more formalized option where you can go to another coach and say, ‘Here’s our scenario, is it OK if we make this change?’”
Young said this is the perfect time to take a stand and think “outside the box” to alleviate concerns over safety. While some may want to avoid football at all costs due to those concerns, Young said the lessons a child can learn through playing football are invaluable and some of the most unique an athlete can attain.
“We can’t just dig our heels in the dirt and say this is the way it’s always been so we’ve got to keep doing it that way,” said Young. “I don’t think we’re going to have a very good outcome if that is the approach, and I don’t think there has been that outcome across the board. I think there’s more people trying to be thoughtful at that.”
Young speaks primarily for those at the lower levels, where varsity and sub-varsity teams aren’t as defined as say the Class 6A level.
For his 3A squad, which has long faced challenges in player numbers, allowing players to focus more on their offensive and defensive responsibilities, as well as spending more time on fundamentals, is much more important than finding time (and players) to work on special teams at the lower levels. On Monday, his long snappers went through about a dozen snaps each to hone their skills, while most of the swing JV players were on another field working as a scout team to prep the varsity for its upcoming game.
“We’ve done it already this year and it didn’t diminish the experience the kids got,” Young said of the experimental rule. “You’re minimizing the higher collision-type plays and often times the long snappers and punters are struggling with having to perform with limited reps at our level, so to take those things out of the mix and let them focus on offense and defense, that’s what the sub-varsity level is for anyhow, for them to develop as players. As they get older and more experienced they can start adding that to their routine, but we don’t need it until then.”
While Young and Womack each said they haven’t received resistance from opponents when the subject has come up about taking advantage of the experimental rule, they do know the popular opinion is to not mess with the traditional aspects of football that include the special teams phase.
“What I tell people is listen, it’s not baseball,” said Young. “I get it more with baseball when they want to make changes, but football has always been a more progressive game. It’s not like we’re not keeping score, it’s just we’re taking some measure to allow teams to go out and field sub-varsity groups and minimize some of the higher risk plays.”
To this point, the movement for change has been rather slow, including locally despite the efforts of the aforementioned coaches.
“I’ve tried to encourage the middle schools to adopt it and most of them have not,” said Campbell. “I’m thinking if it’s good enough for JV and freshmen, it should be good enough for middle school and youth football. But I’ve been met with resistance, which is what I expected, and the comment has usually been this isn’t real football.”
“Twenty years ago they didn’t like the spread offense because they thought that wasn’t football either,” added Campbell. “I think it’s just a way that they’re trying to protect people now and I believe in it.”
Another issue has been the confusion in using the experimental rule, either by the way it’s handled on a technical level or if there hasn’t been proper communication prior to the game.
“What we’re running into is we have a team that doesn’t want to do it and then have a team that says we want to do it, and that’s where the rub comes in,” said Campbell. “The idea was the athletic directors would talk to other athletic directors so they would have it all solved beforehand and that’s not happening so officials are getting in the middle of it, which is unfortunate because that’s not the way the rule is written.”
While those aspects will likely be ironed out as more teams do it, the far-reaching impact is still to be determined. Coaches like Young, Womack and Waite, among others, hope what they’re doing helps grow the sport and prove that, first and foremost, they are invested in the safety of their players.
“None of us are in this to get anyone hurt,” said Womack. “We’re trying to save this game, and I think this is a step in the right direction doing that. My hope is all the middle school and youth football teams get on board with this, too.”