MORGANTOWN — There’s going to have to be a little more decision-making going through the minds of kick returners in college football this season.
Before, if the ball was fielded outside of the end zone, the returner had to make an effort to get up field. This offseason, the NCAA announced a new rule that a returner can call for a fair catch and still get the ball at the 25-yard line, similar to a touchback in the end zone.
It’s an effort to make the play safer by eliminating more head-on collisions, but it’s created a new emphasis that the West Virginia coaching staff is trying to get across to its players — make the smart decision.
Just because there looks like there’s a lot of green ahead doesn’t mean it’s prudent to risk a return, especially when guaranteed a spot at the 25.
“And that’s something we’ve coached our guys a lot on this camp,” special teams coach Mark Scott said. “We’ll make our calls on the return based on where the kickers are putting the ball, and we want our guys do the smart thing.”
In order to get the returners — such as Marcus Simms, Gary Jennings and freshman Sam James — to understand what the smart play is, repetition in camp has been grueling, according to Scott. Any situation conceivable, the kick return unit has practiced it.
“We’re spraying the ball all over the place to get as many reps as we can and into as many situations as we can so they have to make a decision,” Scott said. “I don’t think anybody knows exactly how this thing is going to work, but it does give us a little bit of an out if the call wasn’t what we wanted or the wrong guy is returning the ball.”
As an example, if the call asks for a certain blocking scheme on a certain side and the kicker knocks it the opposite way, then the returner as the right to call for a fair catch without risking being tackled inside the 15-yard line.
In a game last season against Delaware State, defensive end Ezekiel Rose caught a pooch kick out of necessity inside the 25. While Rose had a nice turn of 20 yards, having linemen return kicks isn’t ideal, so if the situation happens again, up-men used for blocking can call for a fair catch.
“It’s going to be a little trial by fire, but with the amount of scenarios we’ve crafted, our guys should be ready,” Scott said.
As the season wears down and the new rule settles in as the norm, Scott thinks whatever deficiencies arise will subside once coaches figure out ways to negate what coverage teams are doing.
“Early on, we’ll set stricter parameters on [the kick returner] and as things unfold and we have a better idea of how teams are going to attack us, then we can come up with game-plan things to counteract those,” Scott said.
On other side of it, kickoff coverage units can draw up different ways to make returners uncomfortable.
Something Scott believes coaches will do — and himself — is put the ball in a spot where the anxiousness of returners will come into play.
“I think kickers will put pooch kicks somewhere between the 10- and 15-yard lines — kind of a tweener spot to make the returner decide if it’s worth the risk,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been toying with to see how we can make it work, but again, it’s all a work in progress and a wait-and-see type deal.”