Math Wednesday: Kicking to Win

By Chad Peltier on July 10, 2013 at 7:00p

Urban takes great pride in his special teams, dubbing them the "Freakshow" and personally coaching these units. In that respect he's the perfect man to follow Coach Tress, whose favorite play was the punt. 

An Unidentified Flying Basil (UFB) after a kickoffBasil adapted well to the NCAA kickoff rule changes

Meyer puts his best players on special teams:

“We want to change the game (through special teams),” Meyer said. “We play the game of field position, which means that any opportunity we can … go after a punt, we will.”

If it's important to Meyer, it's important to me. 

Today I want to focus on the kickoff and kickoff return game. 2012 was a much different year for special teams due to the new NCAA rules, which pushed kickoffs to the 35 instead of the 30 yard line, moved touchbacks to the 25 instead of the 20, and limited kickoff coverage units to a five yard running head start. 

This led to over a third of all kickoffs being booted into the endzone – 34.8% compared to 15.2% before the rule change.

Obviously the smart response is to begin kicking higher and aiming kickoffs for around the five yard line. Meyer did exactly this in 2012, instructing Drew Basil and his Freakshow coverage team to swarm the returner before they reach the 25 yard line. 

So how did Basil and the rest of the coverage team do? 

I compiled a small dataset of all Ohio State kickoffs, breaking them down by (1) the distance Basil kicked, (2) the return yards, (3) the final opponent starting position, and (4) whether Basil or the coverage unit did their jobs (that is, whether opponents had worse starting field position than if they had gotten a touchback).

We can get a better idea of how each part of the Freakshow adapted to the NCAA rule changes by separating the kick distance from the return distance. Here are the most important results: 

Coverage Team 30 good, 19 bad - 61%
Basil 57 good, 1 bad - 98%
Touch backs 16/74 - 21.6%

The first thing that stands out to me is that Basil was really excellent at placing the ball near the end zone to take advantage of the rule change. 

Ok, Roby didn't do this on kickoff coverage, but you get the ideaThis is why you put your best players on special teams

77% of Basil's kicks were "good" in the sense that they were placed near the end zone and didn't result in a touchback. His one bad kick was out of bounds against Michigan. 

Further, many of his touchbacks were in early games against Miami, Cal, and UAB. I only expect his placement to get better next season. 

The kickoff coverage team is where Meyer puts his best players as well as the most athletic underclassmen to go make a name for themselves. The Freak Show wasn't exactly dominant in 2012, with some notable coverage lapses against Purdue and Indiana.

Illinois was absolutely miserable in Tim Beckman's first season, but return man Terry Hawthorne had a huge day against the Buckeyes. Hawthorne wasn't even the Illini's top kickoff returner over the season, but averaged over 29 yards per return against the Buckeyes. 

The Buckeyes were 52nd in the country in average opponent kickoff return yards, at 20.77. There is certainly room for improvement in this department, but Meyer has an excellent class of incoming freshmen to audition for the Freak Show. 

Opponents started with better than baseline field position (the 25 yard line) on less than a third of Ohio State's kickoffs (20/74), meaning that the unit performed well overall. 

As for Ohio State and kickoff returns, I was surprised to see that Rod Smith led the team in kickoff return yards (278) and average return yards (23.17). Those are pretty decent numbers, but it certainly doesn't guarantee that Smith will be the primary return man against Buffalo. I could certainly see Ezekiel Elliot, Jalin Marshall, Dontre Wilson, or James Clark getting a shot in the endzone. 

However, the best returner might be Jordan Hall. Hall averaged 26.27 yards per return, which is the highest average for any returner with more than one kickoff return in the last five years other than Ray Small. 

Like many Buckeye units, the kicking game was fairly solid in 2012, but left a lot of room for improvement in 2013. 


Comments Show All Comments

4thandinches's picture

With that new rule change, I can honestly say I never thought about just kicking the ball higher. I guess that is why we pay Urban millions.  

I wasn't born a Buckeye but I became one as fast as I could. 

rekrul's picture

I always wondered why teams did not do this, including in the NFL.  Especially if they get a personal foul of 15 yards they just launch it through the end zone.  I always thought to loft it up around the 15 yard line and make a kick off returner field the kick with coverage around him.  I think at the 15 there is a real good chance for a mistake that leads to a turnover because of the coverage getting there and maybe making someone not used to catching the ball in traffic do so.

Out Work, Out Think, Out Play!!!

Adam21's picture

Love this article. I had thought Drew did a pretty good job of ball placement on kickoffs. Did not realize that he did a pretty amazing job of that. Having more athletes next to him will only make him look even better. I am privileged to be friends with a family member of Drew's, so if I am lucky enough to see him again, I'll be sure to tell him that he is doing a good job and keep it up.

Orlando Pancakes's picture

I can only reason that your downvote was a simple mistake or a drunken accident. I'm like you in that I knew Drew was good on kickoffs, but this makes him look fantastic.

Adam21's picture

Eh, I took it as I must have come off like a know-it-all or was trying to get praise for knowing the Basil's... Either way, I'm not too worried about it. +1 for you, especially because of the name!

fanosu99's picture

The funny thing is last year I was discouraged because of the low amount of touch backs. I guess that's why I'm not paid millions to coach.

rdubs's picture

Another factor could be hangtime.  You could kick it to the five but still have it be fairly low and not really be a good kick on Basil's part.  I am not sure the best way to rate this unless you knew what the average hangtime was for a ball kicked 65 yards and see if his was higher than that.

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

The kicking game is huge.  Got to get that field position in order to maximize the chances of scoring.  I like the emphasis that is being put on special teams. 

Eddie-Eddie's picture

I think some of the new speedsters that we have coming in this year are really going to break out in the kick return game!  It's going to be an exciting year!!

unholy bucknut's picture

Drew be putting it down for Chillicothe this year.

ColerainBuckeye33's picture

Im calling it now.James Clarke will break atleast 2 returns for TD's whether it be punts or KR's and will be a household name by the end of the season.

A wise man once said "success is not final and failure is not fatal"

Dr. House's picture

i know Basil is in a kicking motion but all i could see/ask originally is why is he acting like an airplane?

MN Buckeye's picture

I think he is imagining himself as the ball

Chad Peltier's picture

This picture was too good to pass up. 

Obuck's picture

Isn't Combs now coaching special teams?

Nutinpa's picture

Silly me.  I guess this is why I am an "armchair QB/fan" and the coaches get the big bucks.
While a kick off that is returned can always result in a fumble or something that really benefits the Buckeyes, I had thought the goal was to kick the ball out of the end zone.  If that means the opposing team gets the ball on the 25 instead of the 20, so be it.  Maybe I have been traumatized by the sight of opposing teams (recall the opening kick-off of the 2010 Wisky game) that set the tone for that horrible game.  And there have been others like the Florida return for a TD in that s**tty bowl game.  Maybe 2011 is still too etched in my mind. 
If Urban Meyer is paid the big bucks to inspire his team to make a tackle inside the 20, then so be it.  But if the only thing he is disappointed about in 2013 is that our Kick=offs were rarely returned..... with our Defense often starting at the 25 yd line, I will be happy and not complain, LOL.

pjtobin's picture

I would love to see big Mike Mitchell return one or two. He is so big, and so fast! I'm sure he could run four or five dudes over. 

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

741's picture

I'm sorry but I think this analysis is giving far too much credit to Basil. While he did a reasonably consistent job of kicking to the 5 yard line (which could be an indication of his range, rather than his intent) I don't recall him being particularly consistent in his hang time (i.e., "kicking the ball higher") and I submit this may have had a good amount to do with what was at times painfully inconsistent coverage.
From my perspective (as an armchair assistant coach - sitting in A-Deck) there's not enough reward in employing Urban's 2012 kickoff philosophy, and we got burned too many times. (Basil made some excellent tackles last year though - haha).
When you kick the ball out of the back of the endzone and you deny the opposing team a chance to advance the ball beyond the 25 yard line, or score, on what is a glorified free offensive play. That's what everyone did prior to the rule change when a touchback used to be placed at the 20 yard line. Is it really really necessary to take on this risk just to protect an "additional" 5 yards?
If I had a little more time I would analyze how many additional yards (beyond the 20 and/or the 25) Basil and the coverage team gave up in 2012 relative to just taking a touchback every time. Then it might be interesting to plot the results on some sort of "good - bad" matrix.
Here's hoping that in 2013 Basil and the the coverage unit are more consistent, or that under Coach Coombs a more traditional strategy is employed. GO BUCKS!

Nutinpa's picture

I agree with this.  Maybe since your post essentially agreed with mine, at least in general terms, I am now inspired to be more blunt.  Based on the all-to-frequent lapses in kick and occasionally punt (but let's stick with K/off coverage) coverage that more vividly come to mind in the past 3 years, (including the Miami game in the 'Shoe that we won, but should have been a blow out if not for special teams) I am now laughing at the idea of trying NOT to kick the ball out of the endzone. 
What is next?  That Meyer intentionally had Ben Buchanon punt the ball frequently around a 35 yard range so his players could cover better?  Yes, Ben put the ball inside ten yd line fairly often, but that truly masked his lack of a powerful leg that rarely, if ever, changed field position for the Buckeyes in the past two seasons. 
I know that a "numbers guy" is going to come up with a calculation that will say "those 5 yards over an entire season will mean X yards we are giving to the competition".   To which I would say that if our "Silver bullets" can't create as many 3 and outs from the 25 as they would from the 20, then shame on us.
Like many in this article, I am looking forward to seeing how this team performs this year in all phases of ST play.....whether on coverage or in receiving.  The excitement that Teddy Ginn brought needs to be rekindled.  Now that....would be fun.

Adam21's picture

I'm sorry but I think this analysis is giving far too much credit to Basil. While he did a reasonably consistent job of kicking to the 5 yard line (which could be an indication of his range, rather than his intent) I don't recall him being particularly consistent in his hang time (i.e., "kicking the ball higher") and I submit this may have had a good amount to do with what was at times painfully inconsistent coverage.

I don't think it has anything to do with his range. If you recall, Basil has always been the long FG kicker, even as a freshman when Devin Barclay was the premier FG kicker. Last year, nearly 24% of Basil's kickoffs went for touchbacks, obviously a higher number due to being closer. His sophomore and freshman years were just over 22% and 10% respectively. To put that into perspective; in 2009, Pettrey had 4% of his kicks were touchbacks and Barclay 16%. In 2008, Pettrey had 18%. Unfortunately, the website I used,, only went to 2008. I would've loved to have seen Nugent's seasons.