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Who Might Benefit From New Kickoff Rule?

More bullet points. The teams that have the potential to greatly benefit from the kickoff changes announced yesterday will have one or more of the following traits:

1. A capable leg on kickoffs, which would allow a team to either put the ball into the end zone nearly without fail or, should a coach so choose, to place the kickoff at or near the opposing goal line.

2. Strong coverage on kickoff returns: averaging about 22 yards allowed per return, give or take, with few lapses in coverage.

3. Below average to weak production in its own return game: little explosiveness and a lack of field position-turning big plays.

4. A strong field goal kicker, one able to make attempts in the 45-yard range with a high degree of consistency.

Let’s think about what each quality would bring to the table under the new kickoff rules. The first, having a strong leg on the kickoff itself, will be an even stronger asset than it was under the old kickoff rules, when kicks took off from the 30-yard line, not the 35. Depending on a coach’s preference, having a strong-legged kicker would virtually ensure that every kickoff goes into the end zone and draws a touchback.

Now, is this really a good thing — since touchbacks are now moved out to the 25-yard line, not the 20? That depends on a team’s kickoff coverage; if weak, a coach would love to be able to ensure that an opposing offense never opens its possession out farther than the 25. The team that truly benefits from the kickoff changes is one that has a kicker capable of placing the ball near the goal line, forcing teams to return the kick while coverage units are lined up five yards closer than under the previous kickoff rules.

But that latter point only holds true if a team can combine a strong leg with a solid coverage unit. For the first positive trait listed above, teams that would benefit are simply those that have shown an ability to dictate opening field position via the kick itself — basically, those teams that, looking towards 2012, have a kicker with a track record of putting the ball into the end zone.

Teams that would benefit Auburn, Florida State, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, U.C.L.A. and Nebraska, among others.

Teams that cover returns well are given the option of kicking short and relying on its coverage unit to keep teams pined near its own 20. Imagine the scenario: East Central State — a fake school, not the former administrative division of Nigeria — knows it can cover kicks well, so instead of putting the ball into the end zone, it kicks the ball to the goal line and tries to fly down field and pin its opponent inside the 25. Every yard counts, as we know.

And merely kicking the ball out of the back of the end zone moved teams out to the 25. If a coach has confidence in his coverage unit, why wouldn’t he ask his kicker to kick the ball short? And the advantage of having a strong coverage team is doubled if a team has a kicker capable of booming the ball high in the air off the tee; if he’s able to do so, the opposition might field the ball near its own goal line with little room to operate. Cover kickoffs well? Then moving the tee up to the 35 is music to your ears.

Teams that would benefit Arkansas State, Tennessee, Utah, Miami (Fla.), Cincinnati, Florida State and Oregon, among others.

It seems contrary to common logic, but teams without any punch in the return game will benefit from the new rule. With more kicks likely to go into the end zone, those teams that struggled to find any big plays on kickoff returns will benefit from the five yards tacked onto touchbacks. Take Illinois, for example. In 2011, the Illini averaged an amazingly paltry 15.7 yards per kick return; that was dead last in the F.B.S., nearly two fewer yards per return than Akron, who finished 119th.

Based on that number, Illinois rarely opened a possession following a score outside of its own 20. If the opposing team kicked it into the end zone: at the 20. If the Illini returned the kick: at the 20, if not closer to their own end zone. Teams like Illinois, if they continue to struggle in the return game, will benefit greatly from the new touchback rule. It’s hard to base how a team will fare on kickoff returns based merely on last season, but those teams with consistent return issues will happily take a knee and move out to the 25.

And if you’re a team with return issues but a top-flight offense? Then you’re in luck: those five extra yards on the touchback leave you five yards closer to the end zone. Oregon might not need those five yards — not that the Ducks have return issues — but they can’t hurt, of course. For those offensively-gifted teams resigned to a poor-return-game fate, opening a series at the 25 sounds awfully appealing.

Teams that would benefit Illinois, Michigan, Georgia Tech, Baylor, Boston College and San Diego State, among others.

Finally, there’s the immense benefit the new kickoff rules will give to teams with a solid field goal kicker. Again, imagine a scenario: State University might gain only 40 yards on a drive before it fizzles, but those 40 yards now leave it at the opponent’s 35-yard line, not the 40. A 45-yard drive following a touchback would leave State University at the opposing 30, not the 35.

In the first scenario, those five yards provide the difference between a clear punt — or an attempt to convert on fourth down, in some cases — and a potential field goal try. For some teams, a potential 52-yard try always leads to the kicker getting the call. In the second scenario, the added five yards provides the difference between a very difficult kick and one that falls well within the doable range for a solid college kicker.

Teams that would benefit Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Clemson, Cincinnati and Louisiana-Lafayette, among others.

Want one team negatively impacted by the new kickoff rules? Try Purdue, which finished last season ranked ninth in the F.B.S. in touchback percentage on kickoffs; led the nation in kick return average at 28.7 yards per return; and had one of the nation’s best kickers in Carson Wiggs, who exhausted his eligibility after last season. On the plus side, the Boilermakers’ coverage units were as bad as any team’s in the country.

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Comments

  1. BobJ says:

    My head hurts.

  2. Andrew says:

    Teams that will benefit – “Every team that plays Oregon”

    :)

  3. Tom says:

    I question the “injury” logic to move the kick-off to the 35 yard line. If the kicker has the ability to “lob” (3-4 second hang time) the kick-off inside the 10 yard line, I think the returner will get killed. The kick-off team gets a running start from the 35 and in 4 seconds will be approaching the opponents 25 yard line. Will there be enough time and space for the returner to avoid the crush? We’ll see, I guess.

  4. Andrew says:

    The idea is that the fear of a good kick/covering team would force more fair catches inside the 25.

    This may backfire in some cases, mental lapses by returners choosing not to call fair catch may be plowed almost immediately, but i think overall argument that the new rule is safer is “mostly” correct.

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