Since Urban Meyer returned to coaching college football in 2012 following his one-season hiatus, his standard operating procedure in Columbus has been to get the best players at every position, coach those players up, and use their natural abilities— combined with top-level coaching acumen— to take advantage of glaring talent differentials that the Buckeyes have over almost-always inferior opponents.
This has been especially true on special teams for Meyer’s Ohio State squads, as he has taken a hands-on approach to coaching the third unit; often stacking the coverage teams with starters and future superstars. While having players split practice time between their primary positions and special teams can sometimes lead to less than desirable results, Meyer’s philosophy has clearly been that the athletic advantage that his units have, outweigh any potential negatives coming from their lack of reps.
However, a new NCAA rule that was finally made official last week, is forcing the head coach to rethink park of his kickoff gameplan for the coming season.
How it all began
To understand how we got to the current conundrum for Meyer, let’s go back to just before his first year as the head coach at OSU. Following the 2011 season, the NCAA approved a pair of changes to kickoffs designed to decrease the frequency in which returners actually advanced the ball out of the endzone.
The moves— kicks were moved up five yards and touchbacks came out to the 25— were designed to limit the potential injuries that players could suffer from colliding with finely-tuned muscle machines sprinting at peak velocity down the field.
However, in a move that should have been anticipated by anyone paying attention, college football coaches were not going to leave well-enough alone and simply concede the extra yardage when they could, and instead, mine the new rules to capitalize on prior unavailable advantages.
As Meyer began to start his tenure at Ohio State, he realized that— as he did at Florida— at OSU, he should have a significant talent-advantage at all positions against almost all of his opponents. So, Meyer decided to use these theoretical advantages, at both kicker and on the coverage team, to employ the equivalent of a coffin-corner kickoff philosophy.
The strategy was to kick the ball as high as possible, to one side of the field, between the five and 10 yard-line; forcing the returner to catch the ball in play, but giving the coverage team enough time to get downfield to prevent a big return. Thus, not allowing him to advance to the 25-yard-line, which he would have been gifted, had he been able to down the ball in the endzone.
Over the six years of Meyer’s tenure in Columbus, this gameplan has at times been incredibly successful, and at others... not so much (I’m sorry, I will never forgive kicking the ball out of bounds). However, here is an example of the strategy working to perfection against Michigan last November.
Before the 2012 rule change, Buckeye fans were conditioned to believe that the only good kickoffs were ones that went out of the back of the endzone, negating the opportunity for opposing teams to score a touchdown on a flukey kickoff return.
Given OSU’s historically stingy defenses, this made sense when considering the rules of that time, and the legacy of the golden-footed kicking god known as Mike Nugent. During the final season of Nuge’s Groza-winning, record-breaking career, 34 of his 55 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks, good for 61.8 percent. Combined with his 20-of-23 field goal mark that season, Nugent became the first kicker in Ohio State history to be named by his teammates as the Buckeyes’ season MVP... he’s a kicker! If that’s not G.O.A.T. material, I don’t know what is.
However, as SBNation’s Football Studyhall noted following the 2012 season, touchbacks more than doubled after the rule change was implemented, meaning that more teams were able to equal the advantage that Ohio State had in having a kicker who could boom the ball through the endzone.
So, like all visionaries ahead of their time, Meyer realized that when everyone is zigging, it is often best to zag. Therefore, to take advantage of an obvious flaw in the NCAA’s thinking, he came up with the new strategy, as explained by former OSU kicker Drew Basil in 2013.
In 2012 and 2013, Basil had the third-lowest touchback percentage in the Big Ten at 23.68 and 25.96 percent, respectively. Since then, the Buckeyes have been in the bottom quarter of the league in this category every year, and in 2017, freshman Blake Haubeil (believe it or not, that was the name of OSU’s kickoff kicker for most of last year) had the second-lowest touchback percentage in the B1G at just 13.64 percent— although he was tied for the most kickoffs out of bounds in the conference with five.
Where do we go from here?
Now, the NCAA is trying to muck up Ohio State’s kickoff advantage with yet another rule change intended to improve player safety. As approved last week, this season, if a receiving-team player signals for a fair catch before catching the ball inside the 25-yard-line, he will be awarded a touchback, thus rendering OSU’s kickoff philosophy obsolete.
When asked about the impending rule change at a press conference in March, Meyer said that his coaching staff hadn’t yet thought about a change too deeply, but did acknowledge that the coffin-corner strategy had been an advantage for the program.
I haven’t really thought about it. And I’ll have an opinion at some point. I know Coach Schiano and I have already talked briefly about it.
But kickoff, the history lesson around here, kickoff has been dynamic. I know we’ve had a couple of bad ones, but when you start talking about the accumulation of yardage gained by pinning the team down around the 10-yard line, we did it five-year, six year study of it, it’s been overwhelmingly positive. So that’s a weapon we’re having taken away from us.
So, now the question is whether or not Meyer will adhere to the motivation behind the rule change and simply forego any potential advantages in order to preserve the safety of players, or if he and his staff will devise a new way to exploit hidden kickoff yardage... I feel like I know what the answer to this question would eventually be before it even had to be asked.
How would you handle kickoffs in 2018?
This poll is closed
Nugent Style: Always out of the endzone
Kick it really deep and high, so we can catch it before the receiving team does
All onside, all the time
I don’t care, as long as it doesn’t go out of bounds