Starting this year, kickoffs in college football will be placed at the 35-yard line instead of the 30, and that could play a significant role in how teams choose to return kicks and cover them.
Take West Virginia, for instance. The Mountaineers, with one of the nation’s most dynamic kickoff returners in senior Tavon Austin
, ranked 26th in the country last year averaging 23.7 yards per kickoff return.
On the flip side, West Virginia ranked 101st out of 119 schools in kickoff coverage, the Mountaineers allowing 23.8 yards per return, so there is a good news-bad news situation here.
There are two other aspects to the new rule:
1. Kicks that are not returned will be placed at the 25-yard line instead of the 20
2. Defenders will only get a five-yard running start instead of a 10-yard running start
Again, it can be a good case-bad case scenario, depending upon how teams choose to return and cover kickoffs.
Co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, who is in charge of the return game for West Virginia, said he will sit down with Coach Dana Holgorsen to determine a point in the end zone where they are comfortable allowing Austin to take the ball out.
“Whether it’s five yards or eight yards, who knows?” said DeForest. “It’s going to depend on the score of the game and weather conditions. There are a lot of factors that are going to go into him taking it out or not.”
Because Austin is such a weapon returning kicks (he returned two for touchdowns last year and he finished the season ranked No. 1 in the country in all-purpose yardage) DeForest said he might have a little more leeway than others in taking the ball out of the end zone.
“I think Tavon is going to have a little more freedom, but ultimately Coach Holgorsen will control that yard line and his decision making process,” DeForest said.
As for how the new rule will impact defensive play, DeForest admits that remains to be seen. Earlier this summer, the coach played a round of golf with Washington Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and he said the topic of kickoffs came up. The NFL altered its kickoff rule last year to alleviate the frequency of high-speed collisions during the course of a game.
“(Shanahan) told me before the rule, the average starting position in the NFL was the 26.1-yard line and when they moved it up it was the 21.6, so it was a five-yard difference,” said DeForest. “But they still run the ball out - it didn’t matter. Guys were taking it out eight-, nine-yards deep in the end zone to take the chance.”
In the past, West Virginia’s kickoff coverage unit frequently struggled to contain returners with opposing teams oftentimes starting their offensive possessions near midfield. Yet despite that, DeForest is not sure the rule change will benefit the defense much.
“Now in college they take it back to the 25, which is a disadvantage for the defense,” he said. “It’s another offensive rule.”
Perhaps, or perhaps not, depending upon how teams return kicks and cover them.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.