The Impact (or lack thereof) of the New Fair Catch Rule

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In an effort to decrease the number of kickoff returns, the NCAA Football Rules Committee has approved a rule that turns any fair catch inside the 25-yard line on a kickoff into a touchback. The offense would then start their possession at the 25-yard line.

The intent is to make the game safer and it should be safer although by how much remains to be seen. As far as an impact on Indiana, it probably won’t be huge.

The Hoosiers had 59 kickoff returns last season.[ref]This does not include the two that were kicked out of bounds[/ref] Of these 59, 22 kickoffs, roughly 37%, were caught outside of the endzone and returned.

These 22 kickoffs are the only ones affected by this rule change.

Indiana’s average starting position in 2017 following a kickoff return that was caught outside of the endzone was the 24 yard line.  The spot that the IU returner caught the kickoff didn’t make a substantial impact on the return length.

Kickoffs caught at or inside the 5 yard line were returned, on average, to the 23 yard line.

Kickoffs caught outside of the 5 yard line were returned, on averaged, to the 24 yard line.[ref]One of these includes an illegal block in the back penalty[/ref]

While the returns averaged nearly 4 yards more on kicks caught inside the 5, the result was nearly the same.

So will we see a big change in the percentage of returns?

Probably not. There were 37 instances where Indiana could have taken a touchback, meaning the ball was caught in the endzone, last season. They took a touchback on 26 of them, roughly 70%. That figure probably won’t change too much although it is worth noting that Whop Philyor started returning kicks during the Purdue game and showed promise with returns of 25 and 22. Both returns made it out to the Indiana 29. However, his participation doesn’t seem as likely in 2018 given his projected usage on offense. Mike Majette and Cole Gest were listed as the primary returners on the pre-camp depth chart.

It’s possible Indiana could have some touchbacks on kickoffs caught near the goal line as well as high kicks caught near the corner. Ohio State, in particular, has utilized this kickoff strategy to pin opponents deep. If that occurs in 2018, it probably makes sense for IU to fair catch and take the touchback. Other than these high kicks directed to the corner, it is likely most of the kicks outside the endzone are returned. Returners like to return. One additional reason is if the returner calls for a fair catch and drops the ball, then the offense starts at the spot the ball is recovered, not the 25 yard line. While there is no disadvantage if this occurs in the endzone, the results would be disastrous deep in your own territory.