Starting this season, kickoffs were moved up 5 yards to the 35-yard line and, after a touchback, the offense will start at the 25. These changes are designed to reduce the number of high speed collisions and injuries on kickoff returns.
How will coaches approach this rule change? It's assumed that most coaches will order their kickers to blast away and simply take the easy touchback, choosing to play defense from the 25, rather than risk a big return. On the other hand, the average KO return is about 21-22 yards, so it's debatable whether giving up the 25-yard line is statistically correct, as a general rule. Moreover, we've all seen momentum swings in games when the kicking team pins the return team on the 12-yard line, or thereabouts.
Here's one discussion of this question:
The problem is that defense-oriented coaches such as Mendenhall, Utah’s Kyle Whittingham and Utah State’s Gary Andersen won’t like having opponents start at the 25. They’ll quickly come to view a touchback as a 5-yard penalty, and they’ll get creative.
Instead of having the kicker blast the ball deep into the end zone, they’ll order high, directional kicks in an effort to pin opponents inside the 25.
"That’s all predicated upon what kicker you have," said Jay Hill, Utah’s special teams coordinator. Nick Marsh, the Utes’ kickoff man, is adept at booting the ball high, enabling the coverage team to get downfield.
Auburn has one of the best kickers in the country in junior Cody Parkey. He led the nation last season in touchback percentage. That was from the 30. Kicking off from the 35, the fans in the first 20 rows behind the end zone should keep an eye out.
But do you want that?
“For us, having a touchback is not going to be very hard,” Boulware said. “If you drop that ball in the field of play, players are going to be more inclined to return that ball. A good return is 22, 23 yards. If you drop that ball on the goal line, that’s still not getting them out to the 25 even with a good return.”
That’s where some calculations that would make a calculus professor proud come into play.
What Boulware and the AU coaches have to determine from game to game — and maybe even kickoff to kickoff — is whether Parkey’s high, directional kickoffs are more or less risky than simply booting 15 rows deep. The outcome of that equation depends on the opposing return men, the playing conditions, the decreased running start for the coverage team and — because kicking seems to be as streaky as putting — how Parkey’s kicking on that particular day.
This past weekend, I attended a scrimmage of an upper-echelon program (not Ohio State), which is led by a highly-respected coach. In the scrimmage, the kickers blasted the ball deep into the EZ every time, while an assistant tossed an extra ball to the returner, so that they could practice both kicking the ball and the KO return game on the same plays. Not to read too far into a scrimmage, but either that coach will choose to "kick away" or will wait to practice the exotic "squib" and/or high, directional kickoffs later in camp before the season starts.
How will Ohio State approach the kicking game in response to this new rule?