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Why Are We Still Returning Kicks In College Football?

With 12:18 left in the fourth quarter of a game that would decide the Big Ten East title, Indiana had trimmed Ohio State’s 35-7 lead to 42-28. On the ensuing kickoff, Buckeyes return man Demario McCall caught the kick at his own 4-yard line, looking to make a play. But he only made it to the 22, and then a holding penalty pushed Ohio State back to the 12. The Buckeyes’ expected scoring margin dropped by more than a half-point on that play alone, and they gave the ball back to Indiana near midfield. Two plays later, the Hoosiers drew within one score on a 56-yard touchdown, and that Saturday afternoon in Columbus became far more exciting than expected.


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For almost 10 years, the NCAA has been trying to dissuade teams from returning the kind of kick McCall caught, all while refusing to eliminate the kickoff entirely. Science has long shown that the kickoff is the most dangerous play in football, with the highest incidence rate of concussions from the intense collisions. In 2012, college football moved the kickoff line forward from the 30-yard line to the 35 and the touchback line from the 20-yard line to the 25, encouraging teams to take touchbacks and avoid some of those collisions. In 2018, another new rule dictated that returners could call for a fair catch inside the 25-yard line and secure field position at the 25. The kickoff again became a (slightly) less significant part of the game.

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The effects of those rules on the kickoff appear to have reached a plateau. Even when a wave of the arm could secure automatic field position at the 25-yard line, returners like McCall are still bringing the ball out. In 2011, according to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, FBS teams returned 76.4 percent of all kicks.1 After the rule change in 2012, that return rate dropped to 58.1 percent as touchbacks spiked. In 2018, after the new fair-catch rule, the return rate fell again, from 51.6 percent to 40.3 percent, but it has remained roughly steady over the past two seasons.

But why is the rate even as high as it still is? By attempting a return, teams risk more miscues near their own end zone for little upside. Just 12.9 percent of kickoffs have been returned 30 or more yards this season, down from 13.9 percent in 2019 and 14.2 percent in 2018. And 9.2 percent of returned kickoffs in 2020 have been affected by penalties (4.8 percent by holding calls), both the highest rates since at least 2004.

Meanwhile, there’s evidence that these kinds of rule changes have helped lower the incidence of concussions. In 2016, the Ivy League moved the kickoff from the 35-yard line to the 40 to increase touchbacks (and moved the touchback from the 25 back to the 20). A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that in the previous three seasons, kickoffs in the conference had a staggering concussion rate of 10.93 per 1,000 plays, more than four times the league’s average overall concussion rate in that time span. But in the two seasons following the rule change, Ivy League players suffered only 2.04 concussions per 1,000 kickoff plays, compared with 1.18 concussions per 1,000 other plays.2

The NCAA has at least heard a radical idea to eliminate the kickoff. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano — who, in his first stint at the school, watched as junior Eric LeGrand was paralyzed on a kickoff in 2010 — proposed in 2011 that the kickoff be replaced with the scoring team retaining possession for a fourth-and-15 play from its 30-yard line. The idea is that punts would replace kickoffs, and fourth-and-15 tries for the offense would replace onside kicks. (Punts, according to the JAMA study of concussions in Ivy League football, had a concussion rate of just 1.12 per 1,000 plays, even fewer than regular scrimmage plays.) Since the start of the 2010 season, FBS teams have averaged 37.4 net yards per punt, so the average punt from the 35-yard line would leave the opponent at its 28. In the same span, teams have recovered 24.3 percent of onside kicks — though the rate is significantly higher when the opponent isn’t expecting it, such as in the first half — and converted 20.2 percent of fourth-and-15 plays.

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For now, the kickoff remains a long-standing tradition from a bygone era, an often-insignificant sequence but still one that begins each half of every game. As with many traditions, the prospect of phasing it out causes some angst. “Imagine Georgia-Florida and the place is up for grabs and we just jog out and put it on the ground,” former SEC official Steve Shaw told CBS Sports last year. “I think we want to do everything we can do to protect the play.”

Supporters of the kickoff might also note that the play has produced some of the sport’s most exciting moments. Kickoffs have shifted the win probability in a game by more than 90 percent just three times since 2004 (the first year for which we have data), the wildest examples being two instances of teams coming from behind with touchdown returns on the final play.3

Those plays don’t come around that often, but teams regularly reap the benefits of talented kick returners. While receiving teams have been careless at times and started possessions deep in their own territory rather than at the 25, 5.04 percent of kickoffs this season have resulted in expected points added of at least a 1.0. The average win probability added on the kick return remains positive, at 0.16 percent per play, and the potential of a home run is just alluring enough to try it.

Still, coaches such as Texas’s Tom Herman speculate that the traditional kickoff is on its way out. Alabama coach Nick Saban, in responding to a question about the fair-catch rule, floated moving the kickoff to the 40 to further increase touchbacks, noting that when a receiver calls for the fair catch, it doesn’t necessarily eliminate blocking. But as long as the kickoff return exists, coaches are likely to keep turning to it when they need it. “We’re using that as a play in the game to try to make a big play,” Saban said in 2018. “We have explosive players to do it.”

Footnotes

  1. The number of all kickoffs includes onside kicks and kicks that may have gone out of bounds or through the back of the end zone.

  2. This study faced a natural issue of sample size; the study was limited to in-conference games and there were only three total concussions on kickoffs in the two years after the rule change.

  3. Akron scored one of those, against Western Michigan in 2007, and Miami had the other, against Duke in 2015.

Jake Lourim is a freelance writer in Washington. He most recently worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal.

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