One of the most dangerous plays in football is endangered — a trend that has become obvious during Boise State games this season.
Only 39.1 percent of kickoffs in Broncos games have produced a return. That number has been free-falling since the NCAA changed rules in 2012 to produce more touchbacks and reduce nasty hits.
Boise State games featured returns on 76.1 percent of kickoffs in 2011, the last year teams kicked off from the 30-yard line. The percentage of returns — at Boise State and in the Mountain West — has dropped significantly every year since.
“The rules have had the desired effect,” Boise State special teams coach Kent Riddle said.
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The NCAA moved kickoffs from the 30-yard line to the 35 in 2012 and allowed return teams to take the ball at the 25-yard line on a touchback instead of the 20. It was a double whammy for returns — it’s easier for kickers to reach the end zone and it’s less likely that returners will be able to get more yards than the free yardage they get by taking a knee.
The change didn’t make a huge impact in the first year, with some coaches even deciding they’d rather keep the kickoff in play than give the opponent the ball at the 25. But every year, returns have dwindled more.
In the Mountain West, 76.8 percent of kickoffs were returned in 2011. That dropped to 62.6 percent in the first year and has plummeted to 43.9 percent this year.
“For us, it takes some hits off our players,” Riddle said. “That’s been a good thing for us.”
Many of the blocks on kickoff return occur regardless of where the kick goes, but those are low-impact blocks, Riddle said. The big ones — between defenders running 50-plus yards down the field and blockers set up in front of the returner — can be avoided with a quick touchback.
And the returner doesn’t get hit, either.
“I do think it’s right,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “The way it’s set up has been effective. ... I don’t think it’s hurt the game, really, in any way from what I’ve seen.”
Players say they enjoy kickoff returns and are aware of how limited their opportunities are.
“It gives you a chance for a big hit,” said junior defensive end Sam McCaskill, who is on the Broncos’ wedge in front of the returner, “and definitely to make an impact on the game.”
Returns have dipped every year, Riddle said, because kickers keep getting better and coaches have realized how difficult it is to get a return past the 25. The coverage team often reaches the 25 by the time the returner gets the ball, he said.
This year, only 17-of-128 teams in FBS average 25 or more yards per return. Boise State averages 20.8.
“There’s still opportunities there. If you feel like bringing it out, you can bring it out,” Riddle said. “It’s kind of that risk-reward thing. To get really good at it, you need more live reps and you’ll probably sacrifice field position in the meantime doing that.”
The rapid decline in returns begs the question: Will the kickoff be eliminated altogether?
“I don’t know,” Riddle said. “There’s part of me that thinks that’s maybe what they would like to do. But the other side of it is, especially when you get to the NFL level where all the rules trickle down from: You’re paying a guy who’s going to kick field goals anyway. Do you really want to pay him to do less?
“When the opportunity does arise, it’s an exciting play for everyone.”
Coaches are starting to complain about the late-night kickoffs that have become commonplace, particularly in the West, for TV. Of course, coaches also are the ones who have pushed for greater resources to build their programs — money that has, to a large degree, come from TV networks that are trying to cram as many broadcasts into a day as they can.
Boise State will play an afternoon game Saturday at UNLV for just the third time in 23 games.
“That’s something that needs to change,” Harsin said. “There needs to be talk about it. There’s a timeframe, 9 o’clock to 5 (a.m.), that you can’t do anything practice-wise. But you can play. It’s all about sleep and making sure that athletes have some time to just relax ... and then that doesn’t apply to game times.”
UNLV is coming off a bye, while Boise State is going onto a bye.
Both could work against the Broncos.
UNLV has had extra time to prepare for one of its marquee home games.
“I’m sure we’ll see something new we haven’t seen on film,” defensive coordinator Marcel Yates said.
Meanwhile, the Broncos must guard against looking ahead — like an office worker on the verge of vacation.
“We need to be ready and focused,” junior nickel Chanceller James said.
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A couple notes from the Mountain West office:
▪ The fumble by Boise State redshirt freshman tight end David Lucero last week generated much debate in the press box and on Twitter. Can the ground cause a fumble? It can.
The play was correctly ruled a fumble, according to Greg Burks, the supervisor of officials, because Lucero hadn’t touched the ground with anything but his hand or foot. That meant he wasn’t down when the ground knocked the ball from his grasp as he reached for the goal line.
“Had any other part of his body contacted the ground, the runner would have in fact been down and there would have been no fumble,” Burks wrote in an email.
Mountain West teams are pooling the TV bonuses that they earn for playing Boise State because league schools get that opportunity every year and the West Division schools only get it two out of four years.
▪ Bonuses for games not involving Boise State are kept by the individual schools. Boise State, which is more likely to appear on ESPN than other schools because of its unique TV deal, still gets a full bonus for each appearance.
For example, last week Boise State earned $500,000 for the Wyoming game on ESPN2. The $500,000 bonus earmarked for Wyoming will be split 10 ways, with $50,000 to each participating school (Hawaii doesn’t receive Mountain West TV money).
Chadd Cripe is in his 14th season covering Boise State football for the Idaho Statesman. He also votes in The Associated Press Top 25. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just take it at the 25
The percentage of kickoffs returned in Boise State and Mountain West games has dropped sharply and annually since the NCAA changed rules in 2012 to encourage more touchbacks.
Boise State at UNLV
When: 1:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (35,500, Sprinturf), Las Vegas
TV: ESPNU (Clay Matvick, John Congemi)
Radio: KBOI (670 AM), KTIK (93.1 FM); Bob Behler, Pete Cavender
Records: Boise State is 6-2, 3-1 Mountain West; UNLV is 2-5, 1-2.
Series: Boise State leads 5-3 (Broncos won 32-7 in 2012 in Boise).
Vegas line: Boise State by 20