99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff

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Kickoff is closing in for Virginia.
Joe Reed ranked ninth nationally by averaging 29.7 yards per kick return in 2017. ~ Mike Ingalls

During spring practice in April, the NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved some changes for the upcoming season. One of the biggest changes will impact special teams but since the announcement came in April, some fans might have missed it. The news even got buried in this Sabre notes article back during spring practice.

So what’s the big change? The “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series explores the topic.

No. 81 – How To Treat The Kickoff Rule Change

The NCAA’s Playing Rules Oversight Panel implemented a new rule that will change the look of kickoffs and the strategy around them this season. With the new rule, if a player calls for a fair catch between the goal line and 25-yard line, it will be treated as a touchback and the ball will be placed at the 25-yard line.

The change stems from safety concerns. The goal is to increase the number of touchbacks and reduce the number of potential collisions on kickoffs.

What sort of strategy impact will that make? As the kicking team, this CBS article on the change suggests that it may reduce the “sky-high pop-up kickoffs designed to either put a receiving team in poor field position or create frantic, live-ball situations.” Could that lead to more squib style kicks that are usually reserved for the end of games when a team is protecting a lead? Those sort of rolling and bouncing kickoffs can’t end in a fair catch obviously, but could create some potential ball-handling mistakes in a way similar to those high kickoffs that are often targeted between the returner and the first line of blockers.

Last season, Virginia kicked off 58 times and allowed 24.46 yards per return on 35 attempts. That ranked 117th nationally among the 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. UVA finished with 20 touchbacks, which tied for 94th nationally. The Hoos sent two kickoffs out of bounds too. It could be tempting to avoid kickoff coverage since those numbers didn’t stack up too well with the competition.

Of course, UVA hired a new special teams coordinator in the offseason with the addition of Ricky Brumfield. At UTSA, his kickoff coverage group allowed 19.61 yards per return, which ranked 41st nationally. UTSA created 18 touchbacks to tie for 105th nationally.

It should be interesting to see the types of kicks that Virginia uses this season with the new rule in place. It will also be interesting to keep an eye on personnel. Brian Delaney handled all but two of the kickoffs last season as a true freshman. If the Cavalier coaches decide that they want to just kick the ball as deep into the end zone as possible or they decide for more driving squib kicks or some other variation, then that could lead to different personnel choices.

On the other side of the coin, the Hoos have a weapon in the form of Joe Reed. He averaged 29.7 yards per return last season, good enough for ninth nationally. He set a UVA single season record last season with two kickoff returns for touchdown in the same season. He darted for a 92-yard kickoff return touchdown against Georgia Tech that helped secure bowl eligibility. Then he opened the bowl game with a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown too. Only four other players nationally had more kickoff return touchdowns.

Both of those situations could have led to fair catches if Virginia just wanted to take the ball at the 25-yard line. The potential for a better starting point exists with Reed back there, though. I don’t think Reed will bypass too many clean kickoff return chances even if they fall into the fair catch area of the field.

I’m guessing, however, that many UVA opponents may try to avoid giving him returnable kicks this season at all so that may not eliminate the sky-high kicks from the equation. Why not just aim a pop kick at an up man if you’re the opponent to see if the Hoos will just call the fair catch and take the ball at the 25-yard line? Considering the way Virginia ended the season on offense – no points over the final 10 quarters – opposing defenses may be willing to give up that starting field position just to stay away from Reed.

Regardless, kickoff strategy and kickoff return strategy will be something to monitor in 2018.

So far, the “99 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff” series has discussed Jordan Mack, Jordan Ellis, and Joe Spaziani and much more. The previous articles are below. Click away.

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