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July 16, 2012
Former NC State star return man T.J. Graham might have a record that proves tough to break after new rules changes this offseason.
Graham, who the Buffalo Bills selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, set an ACC record with 3,090 yards on 134 kickoff returns, two of which he brought back for touchdowns. With the NCAA trying to create a safer environment on kickoff returns, players might not get the chance to create magic in the return game as often.
The NCAA approved three new rules changes that could lead to more touchbacks, or bring in different kickoff strategies, and ultimately lead to fewer injuries. Kickoffs have been moved up from the 30-yard to the 35, the same as the NFL. Some kick returners such as the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester still were able to shine on runbacks, but not as often.
The NCAA also now requires coverage guys to line up no farther than five yards behind the ball on kickoffs, which will help eliminate a head start for tacklers. The third rule change has touchbacks going out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20.
"I think you are going to have more touchbacks with the ball going out to the 25," NC State special teams coach Jerry Petercuskie said. "If you have a great returner back there, the 25 isn't a bad start."
Graham's ACC mark could prove incredibly difficult to break.
"I would think so because a guy like Graham would have the reputation where you'll want to bang the ball out of the end zone if you can," Petercuskie said. "Not every kicker will be able to do that just because they moved it five yards. There are some dynamic kickers who have 75-yard ability in their leg. The kid that can kick it 68 yards will still get some returns."
The five-yard head start limit could counter-balance some of the rules.
"That five-yard start will reduce by two or three yards the amount of space we can eat up before a ball is caught," Petercuskie said.
Petercuskie visited with the Denver Broncos during the offseason and learned how they handled the new rules changes last year. The trend became that most return men would still bring it out five yards into the end zone, while the Hesters of the world might do it from near the back end line.
NC State sophomore kicker Niklas Sade had five touchbacks on 70 kickoffs last year, while opponents who were kicking to Graham had eight touchbacks on 62 attempts. Sade averaged 62.4 yards on his kickoffs.
"I think we'll have a lot more touchbacks, definitely," Sade said. "I'm going to try and get more out to the back of the end zone. When I heard about the new rule, I was kind of excited. I'll try to get deeper balls and more touchbacks. I didn't do too good last year with my touchback percentage."
Petercuskie estimates Sade's touchbacks will increase by 30-40 percent under the new rules.
"It just a matter of how deep will guys take it out," Petercuskie said. "If you kick it 70 yards and it's five yards deep, if they want to bring it out, it's up to them.
"There will be times depending on who the returner is, that you'll want to kick the ball up in the air and have it be near the goal line. We'd hang it up around 4.0 to 4.2 seconds and play defense."
Petercuskie knows opponents would have gladly had the Wolfpack start out at the 25-yard line rather than tempt fate by kicking the ball to Graham the last four years. Seniors Tobais Palmer and C.J. Wilson, and sophomore Bryan Underwood are among the kickoff return candidates to replace Graham.
The goal is less returns will lead to less injuries.
"Player safety is always an issue," Petercuskie said. "The new punt rule where you can't jump on top of the shield [blocking] and all those things are for player's safety. I'm 100 percent behind that."