One of the most exciting—and often dangerous—plays in football has undergone yet another rule change at the college level in an effort to improve safety. The NCAA announced Friday that, beginning with the 2018 season, any kick that lands inside the 25-yard line can be received as a fair catch and the receiving team will get the ball at the 25.
This change follows previous alterations since 2012 that moved the point from where a team kicked off up five yards to the 35-yard line and made any touchbacks come out to the 25-yard line instead of the 20.
So, now what? Based on kickoff statistics from the 2017 season, some teams stand to benefit or suffer more than others.
According to CFBStats.com, 36 of the 130 FBS teams had fewer than 30 percent of their kickoffs result in touchbacks. While a fair number of the non-touchbacks were on kickoffs that went into the end zone, the vast majority saw the ball land short of the goal line and get returned.
In the Pac-12, Arizona State (69.3 percent), Arizona (66.3) and Stanford (65.9) had the highest rate of their kickoffs result in touchbacks while Washington (20.7 percent) and Oregon State (29.4) had the fewest. From a receiving standpoint, California and Stanford combined to have touchbacks on just 38 of 135 kickoffs made by their opponents while nearly two-thirds of kickoffs made by Utah’s opponents resulted in touchbacks.
For teams that don’t have a particularly strong-legged kickoff specialist, often the strategy in the past was to try and kick the ball high and short in hopes of pinning an opponent back deep in their zone. Now that won’t be as effective because, like on punts, if a kickoff returner doesn’t think he has room to run he’ll signal for a fair catch and ensure his team starts at the 25-yard line.
A potential reaction to the rule change could be an increase in squib kicks, ones that are kicked low with the intention of bouncing several times before getting to the return man. Those wouldn’t be eligible for a fair catch.
For kick returners, particularly those where that’s their main role on a team, the fair catch enhancement could decrease their impact. Coaches may instruct returners not to bring a kickoff back because of the guarantee of a possession starting at the 25, much as is often the case when the kick goes into the end zone.
There was only one kickoff return for a touchdown by a Pac-12 player last season, that being by Oregon’s Tony Brooks-James in the opener against Southern Utah. Brooks-James was one of three Pac-12 players to average more than 25 yards per return in 2017 among qualifying players.