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Cardinals Use Offseason To Prep For New Kickoff

Rodgers: New rules means returns are 'back'

Zach Pascal, who has made a living as a special teams standout, is among the Cardinals trying to learn the new kickoff rules.
Zach Pascal, who has made a living as a special teams standout, is among the Cardinals trying to learn the new kickoff rules.

Zach Pascal would sprint towards the other end of the field every time the Cardinals kicked off, the wide receiver hoping to make a tackle.

Rarely that happened, with returns dwindling in the NFL -- so all Pascal could do was try and amp up the crowd, throwing his arms in the air.

His routine figures to change.

"It's been different," Pascal said about the NFL's new kickoff rules that are expected to boost returns significantly. "Adapting to the new rules, where you're starting from, how you're planning to attack the opposing team, but that just comes with being able to adapt to a new environment."

Under the new alignment, the kicker will remain at his own 35 and launch the ball into the landing zone -- between the goal line and the 20. That's where the returner(s) will stand.

The other remaining players will be lined up five yards apart at the receiving team's 40 and 35 yard line. None of those players are allowed to move until the ball is touched in the landing zone.

Special teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers believes that kickoff teams will initially feature larger players since they'll occupy more space on the field. Yes, Will Hernandez already volunteered, although the right guard probably won't have his number called.

Pascal is one of the Cardinals' biggest wideouts at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds. As a receiver, Pascal is accustomed to lining up directly across from a defensive back. That experience of getting off the line will help receivers that are tabbed with playing special teams.

"Being able to be closer to the person and work on your moves, I feel like it's easier like me who can work well in space and work well going different directions," Pascal said. "I think it's going to be great for our team."

Rodgers and coach Jonathan Gannon have made sure to set aside time to work on the new kickoff with the rules transition turning it into a priority.

"I know there's not as many plays as the offensive and defense," Gannon said. "But those are impact plays. I think we have players that it should be an advantage for us from an explosive standpoint."

Even with an entire offseason of faux kickoffs, Pascal said he still isn't used to the new look. "I think around camp maybe it'll start being normal to us, but right now, it's definitely new every time," Pascal said.

Linebacker Jesse Luketa has also carved a role for himself on special teams. He said he spent a lot of time during the offseason watching how the kickoff was approached in the XFL.

"I think it's going to be different because it's the NFL. I think through the preseason, fans will be cool with it, and it'll be the norm for them as well," Luketa said. "I think it's going to be good for the game and not only spike up competition but give guys more opportunity."

After each week during the football calendar, Rodgers watches every special team play across the league and takes down notes. Outside of film from the other football leagues, there isn't much tangible tape to show players.

"This thing is totally different than anything we've ever coached," Rodgers said.

The kickoff rule, especially once the season kicks off, will see some changes. Rodgers pointed out that some details have already been changed since the rule was adopted in March.

But Rodgers has said the feedback he's received from the players has been good, which is encouraging going into the offseason.

"The guys are excited about it, like they're ready to compete in this play," Rodgers said. "They said the return rate was 22 percent last year on kickoffs. I imagine that will triple this year.

"The kickoff is real. It's back."