When the NCAA tweaked its kickoff rules in the offseason, moving the ball up 5 yards and moving touchbacks to the 25-yard line to help limit injuries on collisions, it left college coaches with a new decision: Do you still take the touchback, or try to pin opponents inside their 25?
On Saturday when USF plays host to No. 4 Florida State, you'll see two opposite interpretations on handling the new kickoff rules. The Bulls are happy to kick it deep and start opposing drives on the 25, but the Seminoles gamble for something more.
"It's a huge mental boost from last year," said USF sophomore Marvin Kloss, a walk-on who Skip Holtz placed on scholarship this fall, solely for his role in putting kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. "If you can get an automatic touchback, which I'm pretty good at this year, we're going to go ahead and take that every time."
Last year, Kloss had nine touchbacks in 71 attempts, and USF ranked 115th out of 120 in Division I-A in kickoff coverage, with opponents averaging 24.7 yards a return. This season, Kloss had touchbacks on his first 14 kicks, not missing any until he kicked into winds topping 25 mph last weekend at Ball State.
The Bulls have 16 touchbacks in 21 kickoffs, their 76.2 percent the fifth-highest in I-A. Last year, the highest touchback percentage was Auburn's, at 57.6 percent. Nationally, the touchback percentage is up from 16 to 40, so the new rules have achieved some of the desired effect of limiting injuries.
Not when FSU is kicking, however. With All-American senior Dustin Hopkins, the Seminoles aggressively aim kicks inside the 10, then trust their coverage unit to stop returners before the 25-yard line. (Last year, FSU ranked 10th nationally in kickoff return defense, at an average of 15.2 yards per return.)
Take FSU's 52-0 win two weeks ago against Wake Forest. Hopkins had nine kickoffs, but only two touchbacks, with Wake Forest starting its first five drives on its 16, 15, 19, 18 and 13. On the last, FSU had been flagged 15 yards for a personal foul, and Hopkins still had a kickoff fielded at the 1.
"I go for a spot, try to hang it up and let my guys do the work. They make my job real easy," Hopkins said. "Whatever they want me to do, I try to do. It's like in golf: You like to see the ball go a long way. I've always liked to just kick it real hard. The way it's worked out, it's definitely been beneficial to get it up and let it hang."
FSU coach Jimbo Fisher said when he learned of the touchbacks moving to the 25, he bristled at the idea of conceding 5 extra yards.
"I hate to give something up that easy," Fisher said. "When you have a kicker as talented as Dustin to be able to adjust those kicks, and as athletic like we are in covering, why would I give that up? I know the playcalling. When you start calling plays inside your own 20-yard line, you call them different. You have to because the stakes will get you killed. And when you hold a team inside the 10 and stop them, you score, I don't know, 80 percent? It's a crazy number. Keep them inside the 20, you still score at a 60-70 percent ratio. … It's a big advantage."
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FSU isn't at the extreme in eschewing touchbacks — Miami has two in 26 kickoffs and ranks No. 3 in coverage, holding opponents to 13.9 yards a return. Florida is in the middle of the pack, with 52 percent touchbacks and a return defense that ranks 57th.
Kloss and Hopkins are friends who have attended many of the same national kicking camps, and both are golfers who like a solid drive off the tee as a metaphor for kickoffs. Miss the end zone — much like the fairway — and opponents start drives on their 35.
"You don't try to overkick the ball as much (now). You just stroke it like in golf," Kloss said. "You don't really want to crush it. When you crush it, you might hit a bad ball. You want a good solid swing. You want a good follow-through. You go with that, results come through with a good kick."
Holtz doesn't like conceding the 25, but he also knows a touchback is better than a touchdown, having seen Rutgers and West Virginia return kicks for second-half scores in close losses last season. It's a conservative approach, but one that has improved field position for USF.
"A lot of people have made a decision to say, 'we're going to kick it to the goal line and tackle you inside the 25,' " USF special-teams coach Vernon Hargreaves said. "If I know it's going to be the 25-yard line, I know where I'm starting. But obviously, the farther away you can get them, the more you can pin them, the better off you're going to be. The people we're getting ready to play, that's what their philosophy is. It works for them."