Britain Covey's strategy for dealing with college football's new kickoff rule will work only once.
“Basically, I'm going to act like I don't comprehend it,” Utah's sophomore receiver joked. That way, Covey could catch the ball and run, just like always.
That's not necessarily the best approach anymore, as Utah's coaches quickly would remind him. The NCAA rule change allows a returner to signal for a fair catch (preventing the defenders from tackling him), field the kickoff anywhere short of his 25-yard line and have his team's offense start at the 25.
The rule is simple; deciding how it applies to both the returners and coverage teams is complex. “It’s big, game-changing,” said Sharrieff Shah, Utah’s co-special teams coordinator.
The strategy on both sides will evolve during the season in every program. This is one extreme: Utah coach Kyle Whittingham has thought about employing several wide receivers on the return team, having them fair-catch every kickoff and not investing much practice time in this subject.
The Utes are unlikely to adopt that solution, but it illustrates how the possibilities are wide-ranging.
The biggest variable is how kickoff teams will respond to the rule. Here's a look at possible strategy, from the perspective of each side.
When the touchback rule was adjusted in 2012, giving the offense the ball at the 25 instead of the 20, some teams stopped kicking the ball into the end zone and tried to pin returners in a corner. Shah remembers a game at USC last October, when the Trojans twice kicked the ball into a corner and the Utes' Kyle Fulks made it only to the 19- and 21-yard lines.
The fair-catch rule devalues that strategy. Whittingham wonders if some teams now will use squib kicks, bouncing the ball down the field to force a return and try to make the tackle inside the 25. “We're practicing a lot of different scenarios right now,” he said.
“This takes our game plan of kicking it [short of the end zone] out of the mix,” said BYU coach Kalani Sitake. “We used to want to sky the ball and keep it in play so they couldn’t down it, and then try and pin them deep. Now we may have to put it in that gray area, where there is a little bit of indecision.”
Generally, kickoff returners have to think like punt returners now — factoring in distance, location and hang time in deciding whether or not to call a fair catch.
Lamb is coaching the second member of BYU's return tandem, positioned away from the ball, to “have a count in his mind, kind of like a basketball official,” he said. “Anything over a four-second hang time is such that we feel like the coverage is down the field.”
The rule is designed to reduce the incentive for kickoff returns, considered one of football’s most dangerous plays — like the time last October when BYU’s Brayden El-Bakri decked a San Jose State returner. Some observers, including Whittingham, believe the rule marks a move toward the elimination of the kickoff altogether. “The normal kickoff with the normal return is going to become a dinosaur,” Whittingham said.
“They want to be smart and avoid big collisions all the time,” Covey said.
BYU receiver Dylan Collie said, “I believe it was good the way it was, but obviously we are taking precautions and trying to make it as safe as possible.”
As a punt returner, Covey has to be told to use good judgment and fair-catch the ball sometimes. But even if he absorbs a hit right then and there, he's not costing his team field position. It's different with kickoffs now. If he makes a fair catch at the 5-yard line, the ball moves to the 25. The fair catch also greatly reduces the chances of a penalty for illegal blocking, common to kickoff returns.
If teams go back to kicking the ball deep, the Utes will use their guideline of not returning kickoffs out of the end zone, Shah said. They prefer the assurance of getting the ball at the 25 after a touchback, based on the program's study.
But BYU’s Lamb said, “We are going to stay aggressive. We plan to return kicks until we are not good at returning kicks. So I think the aggressive strategy dictates that we are going to return every kick that we can, barring those deep in the end zone.”