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Bemidji State football: New rule change could lead to more touchdowns

Kickoff returns make up a minor percentage of plays in a college football game, yet its nature to produce quick and unexpected touchdowns can have an impact on the final score.

Kickoff returns are about to get a little more interesting following the NCAA's new rule on wedge blocking - a 15-yard penalty - set to take effect this season and it could lead to more touchdowns as teams try to adjust.

Bemidji State head football coach Jeff Tesch said safety, not scoring, was the primary reason for adding the new rule.

"The bottom line is that there have been concussions resulting from wedge blocks and so the NCAA decided to stop the wedges," Tesch said. "We were using up to five-man wedges in the past and now we're going to only have two-man wedges."

Bemidji State, like many other teams, lined up those five players shoulder-to-shoulder to protect the kickoff receiver from the oncoming rush.

That formation is called the 'wedge.'

Kickoff teams countered with a 'wedge buster' to break up the human wall and reach the receiver for the tackle.

With players running at full speed down the field at eachother, the wedge collisions tended to be some of the most vicious hits during the course of a football game.

"It's not going to be as violent as it was, but it will still be a little bit violent," said senior Aaron Roland, a veteran on BSU's special teams unit. "You're not going to be able to go five-on-one anymore and it's going to be two-on-one. It's probably going to be a little more fair."

The NCAA is following the lead of the National Football League's 2009 mandate on wedge blocks. The rule is a break in procedure for the NCAA, which implements rules changes every two years. 2010 is an off year for rules changes.

An Associated Press report earlier this year cited NCAA safety studies as biggest factor for the immediate rule change. Those studies showed 20 percent of all injuries occurring on kickoffs result in concussions.

Referees can assess the 15-yard penalty when the receiving team has more than two players standing within two yards of one another and shoulder to shoulder. The penalty can be assessed even if there is no contact between the teams.

"You could say there might be more free room because the players are not going to be as tight together out there," Tesch said. "You will probably see more man-to-man schemes out there and players crossing in front of each other to cause confusion in the return team. Right now we're adjusting to the new rule in practice. Sometimes we're over adjusting and there's too much space between guys. We're just trying to find a happy medium right now."

All the teams in college football will be trying to find that medium and it could turn into a painful learning process on the scoreboard.

"I definitely think it's going to lead to more touchdowns," Roland said. "For us I think it's also because of some of the players we have on special teams this year. Everyone's going to get split up and you're not going to get a free shot at that return man anymore."

Zach Pulkinen, a sophomore transfer from the College of Idaho, will be taking over kickoff duties this season for the Beavers.

He was an all-conference football player his senior year at Minot (N.D.) High School, but was also standout soccer midfielder and played soccer as a freshman in Idaho.

Pulkinen has not played football since high school, so the new wedge rule is just part of his overall adjustment to the college game.

"They told me that I would be the No. 1 kickoff man coming in and I've been working on that in the summer," Pulkinen said. "They just tell me to kick the ball out of the end zone."

That would result in a touchback, the original wedge buster.

Opener approaching

The Bemidji State football team will open its season one week from today when it travels to Minot, N.D. to face Minot State?University.

BSU is coming off an 8-3 season.

BSU won last year's meeting 47-20 at Chet Anderson Stadium and defeated MSU 28-24 in 2008 in the last game played in?Minot between the two teams.

BSU has won the last seven meetings and holds a 10-1 lead in the all-time series.

Minot finished last season 8-3 overall and is ranked No. 14 in the NAIA Football Coaches Preseason Top 25.