Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is always looking for little advantages he can gain in every phase of the game.
For most of his career, his trademark offense has been based around gaining a numerical edge against opponents by using the quarterback as a ballcarrier.
He is similarly obsessed with finding small areas to exploit on special teams, whether through blocked kicks or unconventional kickoff strategies.
In Meyer’s first six seasons with the Buckeyes, he crammed all of his kickoff coverage unit onto one side of the field and asked his kicker to drop the ball close to the sideline and inside the five yard line.
If executed correctly, these coffin-corner kicks force the returner to field the ball close to the sideline. That allows the coverage unit to come crashing down without worrying about getting outflanked on one side of the field.
The strategy worked wonders – the Buckeyes ranked No. 1 in the nation in opponent’s average starting field position in 2014 and No. 2 nationally in 2015.
However, as new studies have shown kickoffs to be among the most dangerous plays in football, the NCAA and other governing bodies have tried to find a way to reduce the risk to players.
This year, a new rule will allow returners to call for a fair catch on a kickoff. If they field the ball cleanly, their team will receive it on the 25.
Big Ten Coordinator of Football Officials Bill Carollo explained the rationale for the rule during Big Ten Media Days, and it certainly sounded like a direct shot at Meyer’s old strategy.
“Those pooch kicks that are in the side zones that we’re trying to eliminate in the game. Because it has proven out to our testing and reviewing that some major injuries have happened on kickoffs,” Carollo said.
The rule would seemingly kill the Buckeyes’ old strategy. If opposing teams know they’re likely to get pinned deep, they’ll simply call for a fair catch every time.
Meyer said Ohio State’s coaching staff has been trying to formulate a good plan to adapt to the new rule.
“We’ve probably had about a dozen conversations,” Meyer said. “Kickoff coverage, if we can find a way to have an advantage, then we’ll do it.”
Meyer said he and assistant coach Greg Schiano have been trying to anticipate how opposing teams might respond. Fair catch it every time unless the Buckeyes make a critical error by kicking it to the wrong area?
“Do they just condense with us? Or do they keep spread out and see if it’s a kick that’s not on target, and return it? And if it’s on target then just fair catch it,” Meyer said.
There’s less of a question about strategy when the opposing team kicks off. Don’t expect the Buckeyes to just fair catch it every time – if there’s chance to exploit something the other team is doing, they’re going to take it.
“If we have an advantage, we’ll do it,” Meyer said. “Advantages are a missed kick, maybe we feel like we’re better than them in the return game.”
Meyer said it’s too early to know exactly how the new rule will impact his program or the game of college football.
“I’m not disagreeing with the rule. I think it’s very interesting,” he said. “I think this point next year we’ll have that conversation about how it went.”