(photo via Saturday Down South)
This season’s biggest college football rule change has many head coaches scratching their heads on how to adjust the special teams. The new rule will have teams kicking off from the 35-yard line instead of the 30 — moving them five yards closer. The change was made following the lead of the NFL which put a similar rule into place last year to create more touchbacks, cutting down on the number of returns and successfully reducing the number of injuries. To encourage the receiving team to take the touch back, dropping to a knee in the end zone will now bring the ball out to the 25-yard line, rather than 20 — moving them five yards closer to a score. So both the kicking and receiving team get five yards with the new rule.
A lot more strategy comes into play with the kickoff and kick return unit. Depending on your personnel and the opposing team’s return men. Do you want to give them an extra five yards by booting through the back of the end zone? Or do you do tell your kicker to take a little off and force a return with your coverage unit five yards closer?
When on the receiving end, do you field a kick deep in your own end zone and count on your lead blockers and speed of your returner to get it across the 25 yard line? Or do you automatically drop to a knee and thank the NCAA for the extra yardage?
Last season, Kentucky was 94th in the nation in kickoff returns with 952 yards, and their average of 20.3 yards per return ranked 88th in the nation. Just barely across touchback distance. (To be fair, the range for the top half of returns is around 23-yards, down to the bottom half of about 20-yards; so Kentucky isn’t being blown out in this area). However with the new rule change, if all things stay the same, it’s simple to see the Cats should always take a knee. Pick up five extra yards for doing nothing. If the opposing team wants to give it to you, take it. With the new rule their coverage team is even closer, and considering Kentucky’s return men just barely averaged a touchback with the coverage five yards farther away in 2011, their average for 2012 could be well below what that was.
But not all things are the same. The personnel factor is a big one. Depending on who is sent back deep, which team is kicking it to you, or perhaps even more importantly the situation of the game, strategy could change. Demarco Robinson is a young guy who Joker Phillips has praised as a playmaker-in-the-making. He had the opportunity to return kicks last season but didn’t make noise in the stat column. This year could be a breakout year for him, not only catching passes but returning kicks in a Randall Cobb explosive-like fashion.
Craig McIntosh will remain on kickoff duties and if Joker calls for it, continue to suppress the opponents with deep kickoffs. Considering Kentucky’s opponents averaged only 20.1 yards per return on 28 attempts, well under the new 25-yard touchback, McIntosh may want to work on keeping the ball short to make them earn those extra yards. The field is getting squeezed, so it will likely be easier to wrap up a return man looking for a hole. Keep it short to force the return and that average could drop for Kentucky in a good way.
Regardless, the new rule will only benefit Kentucky. If things stay the same, things get better. The Cats offense will get five extra yards thanks to the opposing team’s kicker sailing the football too deep into the end zone. If not and the kicker leaves it short, Demarco Robinson will scoop it up and show everyone what Joker has been talking about. Craig McIntosh is a well above-average kicker, and will be able to do anything Joker asks him to do, whether that is keeping the ball short with a floater, or driving it through the end zone to start fresh at the 25-yard line.