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Data digging: Eliminating the kickoff could cost Duke

<p>All-ACC kicker Ross Martin and Duke's special teams unit forced opponents to start drives at their 26-yard line on average last season.&nbsp;</p>

All-ACC kicker Ross Martin and Duke's special teams unit forced opponents to start drives at their 26-yard line on average last season. 

When Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed after colliding with Army kick returner Malcolm Brown in a game in October 2010, likely no one expected it to be the beginning of the end for the kickoff in football. 

But after a number of other serious injuries, the NFL started discussing the removal of the play and has begun taking steps to limit its impact, such as moving touchbacks to the 25-yard line. 

The conversation has also made its way to college football. The American Football Coaches Association's board of trustees and the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee met last month and considered how removing the kickoff could keep players safe. With two teams of 11 men running full speed at one another, the kickoff has been associated with higher rates of injury.

"I don't think there is any doubt it is the most dangerous play in the game. How much that's the case and how we can fix it is unknown,” Bob Bowlsby—Big 12 commissioner and head of the Oversight Committee—told CBS Sports.

And although some teams may certainly be in favor of making football safer, others like Duke—with an elite kickoff return specialist in defensive back DeVon Edwards—will be penalized if a play that has worked to their advantage in recent years is removed.

“If you have an award for it, why would you take it away? That’s taking away somebody’s shine,” Edwards said when asked about eliminating kickoffs at ACC Media Day last month. “I would think the returner is the person that would take the most punishment at the end of the day, and I don't really have a problem with it.”

But let’s take a look at how much the kickoff went in Duke’s favor last season and how its removal could hurt the Blue Devils going forward.

Head coach David Cutcliffe's team ranked within the top 10 in nearly every field position category among 128 Division I teams last season. Duke was sixth in net field position—the difference in offensive starting field position and that of an opponent—with a seven-yard difference

Edwards was a big part of that success, finishing the year with a trio of touchdowns on kickoff returns—the second-most in the nation—and leading the ACC by averaging 29.2 yards per return, good enough for fifth in the NCAA.

A first-team All-ACC specialist, Edwards was paired with All-ACC kicker Ross Martin and All-ACC punter Will Monday. 

One of the suggestions in place of the kickoff is to simply place the ball at the 30-yard line of the receiving team. If the ball were placed there, Duke would be one of just a few teams punished by the decision. The average starting field position for Blue Devil opponents in 2015 was just beyond the 26-yard line, according to Football Outsiders. On the other side of the ball, Duke started its drives beyond the 33-yard line.

Another idea—suggested by former Rutgers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano—is to give kicking teams a 4th-and-15 opportunity on their own 30-yard line after they score. Like most teams, Duke netted less than 40 yards per punt even with Monday, meaning that if the Blue Devils punted, opponents would often start beyond their own 30-yard line.

With regard to long drives down the field—those of 80 yards or more—the Blue Devils registered the second-fewest, with just 13 percent of their possessions beginning inside Duke's own 20-yard line. Martin, Monday and the Blue Devil special teams unit also pinned opponents deep in their own territory often—ranking fifth with opponents facing a long field nearly 30 percent of the time.

Overall, Football Outsiders’ Field Value Efficiency—a number based on a team’s starting field position, non-offensive turnovers, and scores per possession—placed the Blue Devils 10th in the nation in 2015 and 15th in 2014. Both years, Duke ranked as the second-best ACC team in this metric.

Thanks to Edwards, Martin and Monday, the Blue Devil special teams unit developed into one of the nation’s best, giving Duke a unique advantage last season. Without Martin and Monday—who graduated—this season, freshman A.J. Reed and redshirt freshman Austin Parker will be called on this year to keep the Blue Devil kicking game steady. Edwards and running back Shaun Wilson again give Duke multiple dangerous options in the return game.

Although safety in football will continue to be a priority, removing the kickoff could significantly impact how teams like Duke gain an edge on special teams. It could also change how speedsters like Edwards consider their potential in the NFL. 

“It’s a big deal," Edwards said about the future of the returner position. "It really would help at the next level. A lot of teams look at guys that can make something happen with the ball in their hand and make a change in the game and have an impact."

Hank Tucker contributed reporting.

Mitchell Gladstone | Sports Managing Editor

Twitter: @mpgladstone13

A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak." 


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