Rule changes are coming to college football this season, and they’ll specifically impact kickoffs. This is the heart of the new rule, described in more detail in that link:
The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved altering football’s kickoff rules to allow the receiving team to fair catch the kick inside the 25-yard line and have it result in a touchback [ball placed at the 25-yard line].
This isn’t the first time in recent years that the NCAA has decided to change kickoff rules. In 2012, kickoffs were moved from the 30 to the 35 (making touchbacks more likely and reducing the number of returns), and touchbacks placed the ball at the 25 rather than the 20. The rule changes were an effort to increase the number of touchbacks, which in turn would reduce injuries.
This year’s rule changes for kickoffs are also designed to reduce injuries. The changes had been talked about for the past couple of offseasons, and they were finally enacted for the upcoming season. The change is significant. Kickoff returners have always been allowed to call for a fair catch, with the ball being placed where the returner caught it, just like punt returns. The new rules say that when a kickoff returner fair catches a kickoff inside the 25 yard line, the ball will be placed at the 25.
In theory, this means there will be fewer kickoff returns this season, which will reduce the number of injuries. But what kind of impact will the new rule have on how the game is played? Each coaching staff will have to decide whether they think returning kickoffs is worth it, or whether they’ll have their returners call for a fair catch. Instructions could vary depending on the opinions of the coaching staff, who is doing the returning, where they field the ball, and the game situation.
Virginia Tech special teams coach James Shibest believes most of the decision-making process will revolve around the ability of the personnel.
“I just think it’s going to be so much about what you’re good at,” Shibest said. “If your returner is good, you’re going to be more apt to return them. If you’re playing against a good kickoff coverage team, you may be more apt to just fair catch it and take it at the 25. I think it’s going to be all personnel-based, on what you think of the opponent, and what you have, too.”
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It’s unlikely that Tech’s kickoff strategy will change. Shibest has always believed in kicking the ball through the end zone, if possible, as the most effective way to eliminate explosive returns.
“Even when we came from Memphis, our kickoff guys have had such great legs that we would prefer to take away the explosive play regardless. Just let them have the ball on the 25. And our coverage teams have been really good, too. But that’s been our philosophy. Just limit another opportunity for our opponent with more open space, especially good return guys. Just give it to them on the 25.”
However, he and head coach Justin Fuente have always wanted to return as many kicks as possible in an effort to create explosive plays.
“We always wanted to return it,” Shibest said. “That’s where the decision making for us might be a little bit more detailed, where you may want to fair catch kicks that are way over in the corner and not in the endzone, or maybe the ball is kicked from the right hash to the left hash.”
Virginia Tech was No. 35 nationally in kickoff return efficiency last season, per the FEI Special Teams ratings. However, top kickoff returner Travon McMillian (26.67 ypr) is gone, as is the No. 2 kickoff returner, James Clark (24.71 ypr). How the coaching staff chooses to approach kickoff returns this year depends on who seizes the kickoff return job, and how talented and reliable that player is in the eyes of the coaching staff.
Explosive plays won’t be the only job of Virginia Tech’s kickoff returner. Because of the new fair catch rule, that returner is going to be asked to make good decisions on the fly, and he’s going to have to be able to catch the ball cleanly. In a way, the kickoff returner is more like a punt returner than he ever was before. If he drops the fair catch and has to dive on top of it, then the fielding team has to take over in that spot, likely with very poor field position.
“Because you gave the fair catch signal, if you drop it, you may get it at the five without a chance to pick it up and return it,” Shibest said.
At this point the Hokies don’t know who will be kicking off, or who will be returning kicks. Rising redshirt-freshman Jordan Stout reportedly has the strongest leg in the program, but sophomore Brian Johnson got experience last season when Joey Slye was injured. Johnson had six touchbacks on 12 kickoff attempts. That 50% mark would have ranked him No. 41 nationally had he played all season and kept the same percentage. That’s not a bad number, though it paled in comparison to Slye and his 84.13% mark.
Henri Murphy and Jovonn Qullien have limited experience as kickoff returners. In fact, Murphy averaged 26.8 yards on his 12 returns in 2016. Still, he wasn’t the first or second choice returner in 2017, so the job is likely up for grabs again.
The coaching staff still hasn’t completely decided on their special teams strategy. That will get ironed out as the start of practice grows near, but it will revolve around available personnel.
“All the scenarios are things that when we get to about mid-July, closer to the season, that we’ve got to get real detailed with as far as what our plan is,” Shibest said. “But I think a lot of it is just going to be about personnel. How good the returner is, I think is where it will start. If your returner is really good, then you probably want to give him the opportunity for an explosive play. That’s kind of the early thought process that we’re starting with before we get closer to the season starting.”