Will new NFL kickoff rules ignite former Alabama prep star?

Chicago Bears special-teams coordinator Richard Hightower helped design the NFL’s new kickoff-return rules. Even he doesn’t know how the changes will play out on the field.

But Hightower does think the Bears have a player who can thrive in the new kickoff environment – wide receiver Velus Jones Jr., a former Sarland High School standout.

“When you talk about the new rules and what is the purpose and what is the emphasis of the new rules is to bring more returns into the game,” Hightower said during Chicago’s offseason program, “so how it pertains to our team you can only think about a guy like Velus Jones.”

In 2024, NFL kickers will continue to launch kickoffs from their 35-yard line. But their teammates won’t be lined up with them. The other kicking-team players will line up with one foot on the receiving team’s 40-yard line.

The receiving team will have at least nine players deployed between its 35- to 30-yard line. Seven must have a foot on the 35.

No one on the opposing lines of players can move until the football is touched by a returner or hits the ground.

The kick must reach at least the receiving team’s 20-yard line. If it doesn’t, it’s treated as an out-of-bounds kickoff, with possession starting at the receiving team’s 40-yard line.

Kickoffs that come down between the 20 and the goal line must be returned. Touchbacks still exist, with possession starting at the receiving team’s 30-yard line, but the ball must be downed by the receiving team if it doesn’t go past the end line.

NFL games averaged 2.16 kickoffs during the 2023 regular season. In 2013, the average game had 5.04 kickoffs, and in 2003, that average was 8.44.

If the new rules work as intended and produce more kickoffs, Hightower thinks the conditions will play to Jones’ strengths.

“A guy like that with his type of skill set, with the speed and power that he has, and he’s coming full speed ahead at you, it’s like a damn freight train running at you,” Hightower said, “and he’s going to get his opportunity to touch the ball three or four more times a game, and we all know he’s a very dynamic player with the ball in his hands. But this new rule, because of the landing zone, because of the league incentivizing returns, it’s only going to have a really good effect for not only our whole return team but for a guy like that to really change the game.”

Jones made the All-State team twice at Saraland, including in 2014, when the Spartans lost to Clay-Chalkville 36-31 in the AHSAA Class 6A championship game.

Jones spent four seasons at Southern Cal and two at Tennessee, capping his college career by sharing the SEC Special Teams Player of the Year Award for 2021 with Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams.

In addition to catching 62 passes for 807 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021 for the Volunteers, Jones returned 23 kickoffs for a 27.3-yard average and one touchdown and 18 punts for a 15.1-yard average.

Since joining the Bears in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Jones has more rushing attempts than receptions. In 26 games, Jones has 11 receptions for 127 yards and one touchdown and 17 carries for 154 yards and one touchdown.

Jones has 38 kickoff returns for a 27.4-yard average for Chicago. Since the start of the 2022 season, Jones and Green Bay Packers cornerback Keisean Nixon are the only players who have averaged more than 26 yards on at least 38 kickoff returns.

Because no contact drills are allowed during the NFL’s offseason programs, no team has had full-speed practice with the new kickoff rules. But for a play during which at least 19 of the players will be standing still waiting for a kick to come down, Hightower said kickoffs have the potential to be explosive in 2024.

“You expected it, but I would still say it surprised me, I guess is the best way I would say it, is how fast that play happens,” Hightower said. “… We did it with the rookies, and the rookies are still trying to figure out where the bathroom is. Like, they’re slower, right? But when the vets got here and we did it, we was like, ‘Yeah, OK, this is happening faster than we thought.’”

Of course, it remains to be seen if the rules will increase the kickoff-return rate. If the rules produce more long kickoff returns, then teams could choose to kick for the end zone. Or cautious teams might go for touchbacks while watching others carry out the experiment, then choose their strategy later in the season.

Hightower said he thinks touchbacks will be situational.

“There will be some times in a game where: What returner are you playing?” Hightower said. “In our NFC North, all of the teams are loaded. If you don’t have a returner in the NFC North, then you’re behind the eight-ball. It’s an All-Pro up north with that team (Green Bay) and then you got the one at the Vikings, too, so you got to have one. I think there’ll be times when there are some touchbacks, but more than anything we want to get more returns in the game.”

Jones and Chicago’s other veteran players are scheduled to report for training camp on July 19 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois.

The Bears kick off their four-game preseason schedule on Aug. 1 against the Houston Texans in the Hall of Fame Game. Chicago also starts its regular-season slate against Houston in 2024′s first Sunday night game on Sept. 15.

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Mark Inabinett is a sports reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter at @AMarkG1.

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