Brandon Banks proved last season he's a master of operating in close quarters. This year, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats special-teams dynamo will have more room to roam.
Under new CFL rule changes, the five interior linemen on a punt team must remain on the line of scrimmage until the ball is kicked. The move will drastically limit the number of downfield tacklers shifty returners like Banks will have in their face when they get the ball, giving them roughly another 10 yards of space.
Not that Banks needs much room — he averaged 10.3 yards per punt return last season. He took two back for TDs — and had another called back due to a penalty — in Hamilton's 40-24 East Division final win over Montreal before having an electrifying 90-yard return for a score nullified by a red flag in the Ticats' heartbreaking 20-16 Grey Cup loss to Calgary.
Banks said the rule change suits his style well.
"I'm a space type of returner," he said. "I'm going to use the space to my advantage and hopefully make guys miss and put my team in better field position."
Jeff Reinebold, Hamilton's special-teams coach, said the new rule will put a lot of pressure on gunners — the players who line up wide on punts and are usually the first players downfield trying to make the tackle.
"Now that the interior guys can't leave, the gunners are going to have to do a great job," he said. "That's because there's going to be some separation between the second level and the first level of your coverage."
The return game in Canadian football is key because success results in favourable field position for the offence. Conversely, great coverage can put an offensive unit in a huge hole.
Last year there were nine punts, three kickoffs and three missed field goals returned for touchdowns. Special-teams touchdowns can not only give a team momentum but ultimately determine games.
Ottawa GM Marcel Desjardins said the new rule gives return teams an advantage.
"It will give the returner a good 10 yards of additional space once he catches the ball," he said. "It will have a big impact on what's going on."
One of Desjardins' top off-season priorities was shoring up his CFL-worst offence. He acquired Chris Williams, who was one of the CFL's top kick returners while with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 2011-12 before heading to the NFL.
Desjardins said he had started pursuing Williams months before the rule change but said the new rule benefits the five-foot-eight, 170-pound speedster.
"This was something we'd been planning for a while, going back to even January when we made an actual contract offer," Desjardins said. "But the fact that those rules have been confirmed it kind of enhances that acquisition, I guess, from the standpoint that it should allow him or any other returner to have a little bit more success."
But it will also create angst for special-teams coaches.
"Do you keep the same body types on cover teams or do you go smaller and faster?" said Desjardins. "On the flip side are those guys who are blocking for the returner going to try to hold these guys up even that much longer now to create that much more space? It's all tactical in terms of who's going to try to do what to maximize the return."
One option for special-teams coaches is having the punter kick the ball to a specific part of the field and limit the returner's options.
"Everyone knowing where the ball is going to be, I think that's the biggest thing," Hamilton punter/kicker Justin Medlock said. "That's the communication me and coach Reinebold have been trying to have, just communicating where the ball is going to be because that's first and foremost. But I know directional is going to be huge, that's one of the things I worked on this off-season."