WVU football: Rules prompt Mountaineers to alter onside kick schemes
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Everyone is so concerned about college football's new kickoff rules and how they'll change the way games are played that they've overlooked a smaller alteration that will change the way games end.
Not only will kickoffs start from the 35-yard line now, touchbacks come out to the 25 and coverage teams have their running starts cut in half to five yards, but onside kicks will vary as well.
The receiving team can now call for a fair catch on a ball that has hit the ground once, which eliminates the most popular way kicking teams had to recover onside kicks.
"That's a very big deal. It's huge," said WVU punter Corey Smith, who mainly handled WVU's kickoffs last season. "It's going to make onside kicks much, much more difficult."
Over the past few years, kickers have become very good at driving the ball into the ground to produce an immediate high hop. It was easy enough to practice that kickers could easily pick out an opponent to target. The kicker's teammates would rush to the predetermined spot to get the ball, or the opponent.
"We could drop it in a hoop," Smith said.
It invited collisions, though, and the NCAA acted to change that. The fair catch prevents someone on the kicking team from interfering with a catch on a one-hop kick. The coverage team also had its runway to the line of scrimmage on any kickoff limited.
The rules reduce the force and the number of collisions, but also give the receiving team another advantage by taking away the kicking team's best chance for a recovered onside kick.
"You've got to come up with something new," said Joe DeForest, WVU's defensive coordinator and a special teams specialist throughout his 11 years at Oklahoma State.
"Fortunately, I've done it differently the past couple of years anyway, but you're going to have to be more creative."
The simplest way around the problem is trying to mimic the old way as much as possible. The receiving team can't signal for a fair catch if a ball bounces twice.
"There's a way you can kick it into the ground where it will hit twice - boom, boom, and the second hop is a big one - and then it's fair game again," DeForest said.
WVU's kickers have been bouncing that idea around, though, and found it's not as easy as it sounds.
"Now you have no control because you have no idea how the ball is going to bounce once you make it hit quickly to get that first bounce," said kicker Tyler Bitancurt, who has been in charge of onside kicks throughout his career. "It could take a big hop. It could roll right into their hands. You'd like to have a little more control in what could be an important situation."
The other rules that impact onside kicks remain the same and teams can't have fewer than four players on either side of the kicker. DeForest said that while WVU hasn't practiced any of them yet, he has ideas for how to have effective onside kicks. He said they involve shifting and motion, two or three kickers and even a holder who could end up kicking the ball.
"There will be more of a premium on that stuff because you lost what was almost a sure thing in the high one-hopper with the new rules," Smith said.
Even with some trickery in how teams line up or who kicks the ball, the kick has to bounce in such a way that the kicking team can recover it either before or without a fair catch. Smith and Bitancurt can see kickers trying hard squibs or wobbly rollers and hoping for a favorable bounce either to a teammate or off of an opponent.
They think they can also aim the ball at an opponent, though it would be hard to catch someone by surprise in an obvious onside kick situation.
"It's up to us to experiment with it and figure out what works best," Smith said.
No matter the method, it takes away the predictability they once had.
"I foresee how they did it in the old days," Bitancurt said. "You toe-pooch the top and drive it straight down, but is it going to roll straight to them? It might take two or three hops really low and the fourth or fifth hop would go straight up in the air."
The new rules figure to add oddities to onside kicks, but lower the number of recoveries and limit comebacks and crazy finishes. The larger worry is that the changes won't adequately address safety. Players on the kicking team don't get as much of a head start, but they still get one.
"What's five yards at this level?" Smith said. "Guys will still be full-speed."
The rule changes stop players on the kicking teams from blasting the player on the receiving team trying to catch the one-hop kick, but they also invite new danger.
"Say you try a roly poly, slow dribbler," DeForest said. "It goes to a guy who has to put his head down to get it and guys are diving in head-first. Now someone's getting a broken neck. (The rule change is) about safety, sure, but either way, there's not a safe way to do it."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.