New kickoff rule

Submitted by I Like Burgers on April 13th, 2018 at 5:03 PM
So with the NCAA officially adopting the new kickoff rule where any fair catch up to the 25yard line will result in getting the ball at the 25, do you think strategy on kickoffs will change? Or will coaches just give up and let the other team get the ball at the 25? I think you’ll see a rise in onside kicks. If an onside kick generally gives the other team the ball around the 50, and they are going to get it at the 25 regardless, why not gamble those 25 yards of field position a few times a game and try to get an extra possession? Especially if teams are going to be lulled to sleep by traditional kickoffs. If I have a great defense like Michigan does, I’m definitely trying it.



April 13th, 2018 at 7:27 PM ^

I'm bored and was interested in this. I'm using the home team model for Expected Point Value based on Big Ten conference games from 2013-2014 found here:…

The Expected Point Value of 1st & 10 from the 25 is 1.026.

The Expected Point Value of 1st & 10 from the 50 is 2.902.

So from the kicking teams perspective:

-1.026 = 2.902p - 2.902(1-p)

-1.026 = 2.902p -2.902 + 2.902p

1.876 = 5.804p

p = 1.876/5.804 =32%

The breakeven point is recovering 32% of their onside kicks.

The recover rate for non surprise onside kicks is roughly 20%, while it is 60% for surprise onside kicks. 

It is statistically worth it to try for surprise onside kicks, but that has always been the case even before this new rule.

Looking at Michigan last year, they had 32 touchbacks and 37 returns for an average of 15 yards. Being as favorable as possible and assuming the return kicks result in an average field position of 1st & 10 from the 15:

32 X 25 = 800

37 X 15 = 555


The Expected Point Value of 1st & 10 from the 19 is .5758.

1.026 - .5758 = .4502.

If every return last year now results in a fair catch, Michigan loses 6 yards per kickoff. Their Expected Point Value is -.4502 less per kickoff than last year. Michigan averaged 5 kickoffs a game last year, which would be an Expected Point Value decrease of 2.251 per game. That said, teams are still going to try and return balls, and if your kickoff coverage is elite, you will still gain an advantage here. This is basically the worst case scenario for Michigan and it still only results in a 2.251 decrease in Expected Point Value per game for last season. That's not enough to really change your kickoff strategy dramatically.

Looking at the breakeven point last season for Michigan:

-.5758 = 2.902p - 2.902(1-p)

-.5758 = 2.902p -2.902 + 2.902p

2.3262 = 5.804p

p = 2.3262/5.804 = 40%

So this rule change just means Michigan would have to recover 8% less of their onside kicks to reach the breakeven point, but doesn't change the overall kickoff philosophy. It made sense for the them to try some surprise onside kicks last year, and it still makes sense for them to try surprise onside kicks this year.

TLDR: This rule change does not move the needle from it being worth it to try a surprise onside kick this year vs not being worth it last year. It has always been statistically worth it, it will be even more valuable to do it this year, but you're talking about a difference in Expected Point Value per kickoff of less than 0.5.

It is unlikely this rule change will really have any impact in how teams approach kickoffs.

I Like Burgers

April 13th, 2018 at 8:59 PM ^

First off, great research. But I have a question: what’s the average starting position for a power 5 team on a kickoff? You say teams are still going to try and return kicks, but I don’t think that’s true. If you’re guaranteed to start at the 25, why try and return it if you’re going to end up at the 20? Or 22? It’s going to be the same as punts: don’t try and return it if you’re inside the 10. Except that’ll be like the 10 or 15 yard line for kickoffs now.

And an increase in surprise kicks is exactly what I’m talking about. If the new norm is going to be lots of fair catches and bored and not fully locked in coverage units I think you’ll see more surprise kicks. Now those may not happen at the 60% rate they’ve done in the past, but even if they drop to around 40%, if there’s now a 40% chance I can get the ball my own 50 in exchange for a 60% chance of giving up just 25 yards? I’m taking that gamble. Maybe not every game, but I think it’s going to be something you see more and more of.


April 13th, 2018 at 10:17 PM ^

Teams returned balls that were caught in the end zone, even against Michigan, so they will absolutely still return some balls that are caught at the 5.

As for why, because of the upside. If you fair catch it you'll start at the 25. If you return it, you may get a TD or have a 50 yard return. If you have an elite return man, hes gonna average 25+ yards a return, so on average you will start with better field position than if he fair catches everything. There really isn't that much downside to returning a ball caught at the 2 if you have a good return team or are playing against a bad kickoff coverage team. You're risking maybe 5 yards of field position for the chance to gain a helluva lot more. There will also be situations at the end of half's where teams won't have the time to drive the field and will be more likely to take a chance returning the ball as a result.

Its just like teams in college basketball that slow the pace or shoot a bunch of 3s because they are outmatched. There are different talent levels amongst teams, and kickoff returns give teams a chance to break the game open and crate a double digit point swing. Look at PSU-OSU last year. OSU absolutely dominated that game but only won by one. PSU had one kickoff return for a TD and another 59 yard return that set up a 23 yard TD drive. If they fair catch both they lose that game by 10+, instead they almost pulled it off despite being dominated.

If this new rule has the impact you are suggesting, and everybody just fair catches everything, that would pretty much eliminate the surprise onside kick. Teams would just have their hands team lined up all over the place and the players would never look to block and would just anticipate an onside kick. The surprise kick works because players are mentally getting ready to block somebody on the coverage team. If there are no more returns, they won't have to worry about blocking and will just focus exclusively on the ball.

I couldn't find any stats about the average starting field position on kickoff returns.


April 13th, 2018 at 11:25 PM ^

A couple of comments. I enjoy these discussions.

First, with "surprise" onside kicks, you're always dealing with a low sample size. And in this case, when the sample gets larger, percentage of recovery will drop significantly. I'd also imagine that the new rule will cause teams to be a little more prepared for onside kicks.

Second, per-possession analysis is tough because there is significant variation in number of possessions per game. Shorter fields increase possessions totals and end up putting a little more pressure on your own defense. If you can pull it off, that 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive is worth quite a bit more than it seems.

So I'm not comfortable with addressing this question with an answer based on this low a percentage change (and you agree as well).

I'd probably conclude that it's not a horrible thing to work on onside kickoffs and try a surprise one every few games just to make sure opponents use time preparing for it. But I suspect unless there's something specific the coaches see in an opponent's kick return, it's not a good idea to try one in every game.


April 13th, 2018 at 5:14 PM ^

25 yards might not sound like a lot, but that's not the case here. Getting the ball at midfield is a huge plus for any offense.

The entire playbook is open and having such great field position you might be putting your defense on the hook for 4 downs versus 3. As teams may elect to go for it on 4th rather than punt or attempt a long field goal if they are able to move the ball even a little bit.

Longballs Dong…

April 13th, 2018 at 6:38 PM ^

it's they a fact it a feeling that surprises are recovered a lot? wouldn't on side kicks no longer be a surprise in this scenario? I think it won't cause more on side kicks. i think we still pop it up inside the 10 and see what happens. just cause they can fair catch doesn't mean they will.


April 13th, 2018 at 6:45 PM ^

I think I read that surprise onsides kicks are recovered by the kicking team 60% of the time. But expected onsides are only recovered like 10-15% of the time.

Under this new rule, teams would be stupid to try to return a short pop up kick from inside the 10.

I Like Burgers

April 13th, 2018 at 9:02 PM ^

Teams aren’t going to return it if it’s popped up inside the 10. If you’re guaranteed starting at the 25, it’s going to be the same old adage they use for punts: don’t try and return it if it’s inside the 10. Let it go and get the field position. Except it’ll be and even stronger argument because there’s a 0% chance of them pinning you deep like they can on a punt if you let it go.


April 13th, 2018 at 5:20 PM ^

Because instead of needing 4 or more first downs (if you can limit the big play), a team would only need 2 first downs or one chunk play to have a decent field goal attempt. That’s probably 10 or so more plays that an offense has to properly execute without turning the ball over to our points on the board. Seems that onside kick, rarely recovered, would be a statistically bad choice for a team with a good, or even decent, defense.


April 13th, 2018 at 5:22 PM ^

the rule, but why do you think this would make teams try for onsides kicks? That's like going for it on 4th down every time because of the extra play. I could see fair catches being used on pooch kick offs.


April 13th, 2018 at 5:23 PM ^

I get that this rule is for safety . Am i being selfish in saying so what? I think this is a dumb rule .  Might as well work to kick it throught the end zone each time .

This will be good for teams with great offenses . 

One more reason that I cant wait for College Football season . 

oriental andrew

April 13th, 2018 at 5:23 PM ^

Rather than onside kicks, I can see an increase in squib/line drive kickoffs that hit at higher velocity and lower trajectory, potentially making it a more difficult ball to control, while also eliminating the possibility of a fair catch. 


April 13th, 2018 at 6:05 PM ^

Teams will adjust. If you onside it regularly they'll just always have hands team guys at the front line.

Surprise onside kicks are worth it because they are recovered at such a high rate. Non surprise onside kicks are not worth it because they aren't recovered at a high enough rate.


April 13th, 2018 at 8:53 PM ^

because with the old rules, to force a decision, your squib would have to cross the goal line. and, the receiver could simply fall on it for a touchback.

now, you can squib it inside the 25 (much easier), and if the receiver simply falls on it, they dont get the ball advanced like a touchback. you are forcing them to return it, or accept worse field position.


April 13th, 2018 at 5:26 PM ^

You're right this improves the math on onside kicks.

More than that I think we'll see more high and short kicks daring the up backs to field the ball around the 20-30 where a muff is likely to be a turnover. Urban used to do that at BGSU under the old rules; to great effect in a game vs. Toledo I attended way back in the day. 

The very good "Alaskan Assassin" WR on BGSU at the time (Cole Magner for early 2000s MAC reverse pass enthusiasts) used to drive around campus in an Escalade FWIW....


April 13th, 2018 at 5:38 PM ^

You may see a small uptick in surprise inside kicks, but that's about it.

And the better your defense is, the less sense it makes to try for an onside kick.