Kickoffs in college football as we knew them for years are changing — but Boise State likely will not see a big shift in how it handles them.
Returners can now field the ball with a fair catch, like they can on a punt, anywhere inside the 25-yard line, and his team’s offense will start its drive at the 25. The hope is to eliminate some risky situations with players storming downfield with a 50-plus yard head of steam.
So, it has to be a big topic of discussion for the Broncos’ kickoff specialist?
“Really not too much,” sophomore Joel Velazquez said. “For me, it’s just kick the ball as well as I can.”
Surely, the front-runner for the primary kickoff return duties has pondered the possibilities.
“We have talked about it a lot, the kickoff return rules ... we’re definitely up to speed on that,” sophomore Robert Mahone said. “It’s pretty weird now, but I’m pretty sure no one’s gonna fair catch it.
“I’ll probably just run it out.”
The change creates plenty of potential new twists — some teams would try to hang up a high, long kick that landed inside the 5 to get coverage downfield, but now that is mostly negated. Some could try to squib kick it, getting it low and perhaps bouncing downfield, but that’s not always easy to control.
Speaking to the Salt Lake Tribune recently, Utah co-special teams coordinator Sharrieff Shah said “it’s big, game-changing,” and coach Kyle Whittingham said “The normal kickoff with the normal return is going to become a dinosaur.” At the Mountain West Football Media Summit in July, Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said “depending on your personnel, you can find a lot of different angles.”
San Diego State coach Rocky Long’s teams have 10 kickoff return touchdowns since 2015 (no one else has more than seven). He is not a fan of the rule change, saying it is taking the return out of the game. He also said there may be more onside kicks, rather than risking “some dummy coming out of the end zone and getting tackled on the 5 or 6.” Will he onside kick it more?
“I’m not brave enough to try it, but I think it’s a great idea,” Long said.
It could be just another strategy that is part of the ever-evolving game plan each week.
“Some teams I’m sure are gonna be like, ‘hey, we’re just not even going to practice kick return we’ll go back there and fair catch it and go to the 25.’ I think that’s probably few and far between,” Boise State special teams coordinator Kent Riddle said. “... we went back and watched our film from the last two years, it’s not something that was obvious to just say ‘we’re doing this from the start of the season.’ I think it’s way more of a game to game type thing.”
What could be a solution is just having a kicker with a big boot to just put it in the end zone consistently. Boise State has that in Velazquez, who was No. 9 in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 53 touchbacks in 2017, and his 63.1 touchback percentage on kickoffs was 21st.
Boise State ranked 84th nationally in kickoff return defense (22.0 yards per return), 11th in the Mountain West. So, utilizing a kickoff that may not get the coverage down quickly could be a challenge if the kickoff unit has its struggles.
“We’ve worked fair catch, we know what the rule is ... we still want to try to return it,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said. “To me, on kickoff return, the rule is easy ... but the strategy is how are teams going to use it on their kickoff?”
The new rule is one that Harsin thinks will stick for the foreseeable future, since it limits impacts on the returner and coverage units. He said “making some (scenarios) up” that they may not see even this year, but could soon once teams get used to the rule. It also will be a work in progress in games for some schools as they try new twists.
“This year, with the rule, you’re probably going to see some things, you’ll scratch your head, like ‘why would they do that?,’” Harsin said.