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Larry Izzo working '24/7' to figure out best way to succeed at new kickoff

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The Washington Commanders are 64 days away from playing their first (preseason) game against an actual opponent, and whether it's the Burgundy & Gold or New York Jets who starts on offense, the opening play of the Dan Quinn era is going to look unlike anything the NFL has seen in its history.

Owners approved the implementation of a new kickoff rule -- one that fundamentally changes the play's structure itself -- during the Annuel League Meeting on March 26 to make it safer and more relevant. Rather than sprinting downfield, players are now separated by 10 yards and cannot engage each other until the ball is touched.

Like the other 31 teams, the Commanders are racing to figure out the new structure and how they can use it to their advantage.

"That's one thing that we're working through on a daily basis here, 24/7, is to try to try to figure this play out as fast as we can," said special teams coordinator Larry Izzo. "We look at it as a little bit of a race against time. You're competing against all the other teams here that are in the same boat."

Although the spirit of the kickoff remains the same, there will be significant changes to the play when it's first used in a game later this year.

The receiving team will have a "setup zone" between the 30- and 35-yard lines where at least nine players must line up. A maximum of two players can be positioned to catch a kick in the "landing zone" between the goal line and 20-yad line. Any kick that hits the landing zone must be returned, meaning no fair catch signal is allowed, and any kick that results in a touchback is placed at the 30-yard line.

Onside kicks are not allowed until the fourth quarter, but teams must inform the referees of their decision to use the play.

Izzo believes that the new rules will be good for the relevance of special teams, players who make a career playing on the unit and the game overall. The stats provided by the NFL back that up; according to the NFL's research, the rule change will result in a 50-60% increase in returnable kicks and better field positioning for the return team. Competition Committee chairman Rich McKay added in a conference call that "We have to reduce the space and speed that this play was, historically," McKay said. "The space and speed created an injury factor that -- it's time for us to change that."

The Washington Commanders were back on the field after a week off to continue their OTA practices. Check out the top photos from the afternoon.

Most of the Commanders' special teams sessions in practice have been dedicated to figuring out the intricacies of the new structure. They're in what Izzo referred to as "the experimentation period," which means all options are on the table, from trying different players as returners to looking at whether offensive linemen have more opportunities with the new rules.

"I think we're gonna experiment with all that, those different things and see where it takes us," Izzo said.

The Commanders had about a dozen players on a rotation catching kicks during special teams drills earlier this week. Names like Jamison Crowder, Kazmeir Allen and Dax Milne, all of whom have experience as return specialists, were among the group, but others like Brian Robinson Jr., Austin Ekeler and even Emmanuel Forbes Jr. took some snaps as well.

With the team over a month away from full contact, the coaches feel like this is the time to see what their options will be when the games count.

"Although he didn't do it at Mississippi State, that doesn't mean he doesn't have the necessary traits," Quinn said of Forbes. "So, we got a big deep crew now that we're working people both in punt return and in kickoff return. And so just like everything, we're trying to find out what unique things a player has and how to feature them."

Other teams are working to be the first to master the new play and give themselves an advantage. That includes looking at using position players as kicker -- something the Kansas City Chiefs are considering with safety Justin Reid, who has made kicks in the past. Under the new structure, whoever makes the kicks will be the last line of defense between the returner and a touchdown. Teams might prefer someone who has more experience as a tackler in that scenario.

Izzo doesn't see that as a possibility for the Commanders, but it does speak to what teams are willing to do if it gives them a better chance of executing the play.

"There's a lot of different ways of looking at the play, and I think you're gonna see a lot of different strategies involved," Izzo said.

A returner's body type could also be a factor. Since kickoffs will now bear closer resemblance to an offensive play, there might be a possibility for bigger running backs or wide receivers to have a bigger role in the play, which is why Robinson and Ekeler are part of Washington's group of return candidates.

"The group that we got out there competing and getting work at it, you see all different shapes and sizes," Izzo said. But yeah, I think you're gonna need to have some run strength. You're gonna need to be able to break tackles, and so a running back skill set definitely is something that I think would fit."

No matter who is making the kicks, returning them or lining up for blocks, Izzo and the Commanders still have time to solve the puzzle in a way that best suits them. The problem is that the rest of the league is working just as diligently to figure out a strategy.

Whoever cracks it first will have a leg up over the rest of the NFL.

"I'm obsessed with just...thinking about all the different variables that go into it," Izzo said. "The spacing and the types of players we're gonna be using and just the issues that come up."

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