Much was made of the kickoff rule change this offseason. That change now enables a returner to signal a fair catch and receive the ball at the 25-yard line. The thought, by most, was that this would do away with Urban Meyer’s kickoff strategy altogether.
Previously, Meyer would align his cover unit on one side of the field and have his kicker try to drop the ball between the numbers and sideline. The strategy also asked them to boot it between the 5-yard line and the goal line. Easier said than done, but dramatically impactful when done correctly.
In May, I put out my own thoughts on how Urban Meyer and his staff should adjust their strategy on kickoffs. In short, my advice was to change very little in their approach. I asked that they center the kicks more, opting for the left hash to numbers area. This minor change would avoid the frustrating out of bounds kicks that lead to very good field position.
My write-up also proposed that they put a little more power into the kicks, aiming for about a yard deep into the end zone.
As we approach game three, I’ve again grabbed my pocket protector and hit the game film. The Buckeyes, led by kickoff specialist Blake Haubeil, have attempted 21 kickoffs already this season. An impressive feat, just two games in, but that’s what happens when you lead the nation in points scored.
To date, OSU appears to be testing the waters with the new rule, offering kicks of various depths. I’ve organized them into three groups to best describe what has been shown thus far.
The Point of No Return
At least four times, Haubeil has blasted the ball to a depth that says, “We’re just gonna go ahead and set you up at the 25 while avoiding major collisions.” Almost all of these kicks came in the late first and second quarters of the Oregon State opener. For anyone that thinks our kickers don’t have the leg to blast it out of the end zone at will, I offer you this link.
For these kickoffs, there was little, if any, hope for a return (hence the name). To do so would have likely resulted in a removal from return duties, or, to be honest, a possible injury. The kick in the link above was the best example of Haubeil simply lining up and blasting the ball. There is a large portion of the fan base that hopes that he would do this every time. However, I don’t believe this to be OSU’s best strategic bet, despite being the safest route for the players.
The positives for this type of boot are that it minimizes the amount and severity of the hits between teams. It also reduces the odds of a return TD (or a return at all) to nearly zero. On the other side, it almost assures that the team will start their possession no worse than the 25-yard line.
Low Risk Kicks
This middle ground, or “Low Risk Kicks,” fits into what I had proposed OSU do in the offseason. By my calculations, one third of the Buckeyes’ kicks have landed within a 2-yard range of my ideal landing area, which is to say they’ve been between the 1-yard line and three yards deep into the end zone.
Of those, six were either on the numbers or between the left hash and numbers. A lone, outlier hit the turf three yards deep and just inside of the left sideline.
Of those kicks, the returner let the last one mentioned go, letting it roll through the end zone for a touchback. Five others were caught with a hand wave and either assigned as a touchback automatically or awarded a fair catch. Either way, they were spotted at the 25-yard line. The last of the bunch was an ill-advised return by Rutgers in which Raheem Blackshear seemed more concerned with his dangling mouthguard than surviving OSU’s onslaught of fast-approaching coverage men. The result was Jahsen Wint nearly ending Blackshear’s day, dropping him violently at the 13-yard line.
The upside to this kick is that it removes the concern about kicking the ball out of bounds. It also allows OSU’s coverage team the opportunity to be in good position for a return, should one occur. The downside is that, barring a brave soul like Raheem Blackshear, this kick will result in a touchback roughly 85-90 percent of the time.
Here we go. The wild card of the bunch. This group, the “Judgment Calls,” is what I have found truly interesting.
By and large, it looks to me as though Meyer mulled over the new rule and essentially said, “Nope, we’ll just keep doing what we’ve been doing.” The only minor difference to his former plan is that he appears to have taken my advice (naturally) and allowed his kickers to push the ball to the center a bit more than before.
Almost half (10) of the kickoffs have still been placed between the goalline and the 5-yard line (ok, one went to the six, but, I’ll round down).
These kicks give the return man a glimmer of hope, as his heels are well off of the goal line. In the brief moments while the ball is in the air, he can be set in stone, thinking that he’ll signal a fair catch regardless of the flight of the ball. Or, and this is what I’ve been betting on all along, he may just try to get the better of the OSU special teams group and bring it out. It’s truly up to the returner’s discretion, hence the name of this group.
To date, opposing return men have returned four kicks against the Buckeyes. Three of those four were in the judgment call zone, with the fourth being the aforementioned Raheem Blackshear head scratcher. Not a single return has managed to get the ball beyond the 25-yard line yet. Oregon State managed the 17, 20, and 24-yard lines on their respective attempts. The other seven kicks in this block were fair caught and began at the 25.
The benefits of this type of kick are obvious. This tests the returner’s (and coach’s) offseason prep work, ensuring that they’re aware of the new rule at all times. It also tempts them more than the other kicks, as they are already standing on the green part of the field, ready to make a big play. I say that these are benefits, as the Buckeyes have proven time and again that their athletes are capable of stopping a returner dead in his tracks immediately.
The potential danger of this kick is that it opens up the coverage team to a costly mistake. Needless to say, mistakes could allow for a big return and momentum for the opposing team. Perhaps not having as many fielded and returned kicks would boost the odds of someone missing an assignment and allowing a big play.
In summary, I’m all for Meyer keeping what appears to be his same basic kickoff strategy as in years past. Push the ball between the five and goal line, get plenty of height, and put it all on the returner to make the proper decision. (Oh, and keep kicking it a bit closer to the hash than the sideline to avoid those pesky, annoying flags.)