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New rule aimed at lessening touchbacks; thinning Heisman ranks

Kickoffs, with their sudden mobilization of 22 scattered players, can produce electric moments on a football field. Sadly, however, runbacks in the college game have dipped to an alarming level in recent years.

The reason? Booming kicks that either come down too deep in the end zone to return or sail out of the field of play altogether.

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''With the emergence of powerful kickers, the kickoff has become a nonplay in many instances,'' says Grant Teaff, Baylor's coach. Figures gathered by the NCAA Statistics Service document this trend. Last season, kickoffs were returned only 54.9 percent of the time, a considerable drop from the 83 percent return rate of 1970.

But now something has been done to stem the tide. The NCAA Football Rules Committee has modified the touchback rule so that kickoffs that travel beyond the end zone in flight are brought out to the 30 yard-line rather than the 20 -yard line.

Dave Nelson, long-time secretary and editor of the committee, actually calls the change a compromise. A more effective way to increase returns would have been to move back kickoffs from the 40 to the 35-yard line, as the National Football League has done. But this proposal met opposition from those sensitive to copying the pros. Based on the very limited available results, though, the modified rule hasn't caused kickers to ease up all that much. On the first full weekend of the season, 161 of 404 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, including 22 of the automatic, out-of-the-end-zone variety.

Touchbacks are an anticlimax at any game, but especially those in College Station, Texas, where Texas A&M's special ''12th Man'' unit covers kicks at Aggie home games. The student body goes berserk when these non-scholarship commandos take the field, but kicker Alan Smith is so good that only 10 kicks were returned during last season's seven-game home slate. This 12th Man contingent did quite a job, too, allowing no opponent past the 30 yard-line.

A&M Coach Jackie Sherrill obviously didn't instruct Smith to ease up, and has been an outspoken critic of the new kickoff rule. He and other coaches with outstanding kickers feel the rule penalizes excellence.

Nelson, on the other hand, says the new rule simply calls for greater talent, much as punting out of bounds near the goal line has required for years. He compares the skill to golf, where the idea is to land on the green, not just hit the longest shot.

As for adopting the NFL's 35-yard line kickoffs, Nelson has no reservations about appearing to copy pros. ''We've moved kickoffs back before,'' he observes. ''They once were from midfield. The rules have always been adjusted to the talents of the players, and there's no harm in doing so again when you're trying to solve a problem.'' Heisman field narrowing

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In some respects, the Heisman Trophy race has turned into a battle of survival. Right now the chief survivor is Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie , who has stayed in one piece and is currently a clear favorite to be named the nation's best college player later this season.

The way Flutie's been playing, he might win under any circumstances. After all, he has already orchestrated an upset of Alabama in one nationally televised game, and thrown six touchdown passes against North Carolina in another. Some of his stiffest competition, though, has been eliminated.

Auburn's Bo Jackson sustained a season-ending injury two weeks ago, and last Saturday Napoleon McCallum of Navy, the country's top all-purpose runner, had his varsity career ended by an ankle injury.

Jackson, a junior, will be back next year, but McCallum, who graduates in the spring and begins a five-year military commitment, will not. Black Bears in a bowl?

When a fellow bus rider told me he'd played for Maine in the Tangerine Bowl, my immediate reaction was, ''Maine in a bowl game?'' It just didn't seem possible, especially considering that such big-timers as Auburn, Missouri, Pittsburgh, and Boston College have been recent Tangerine, now Florida Citrus Bowl, participants. But Maine's Black Bears did indeed play in Orlando, Fla. The year was 1965, and East Carolina was an easy 31-0 victor.

The bowl, begun in 1947, originally was for smaller schools, which explains why Catawba, Morris Harvey, and Juniata appear on the Tangerine rolls.

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