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Countdown To Dublin: Huff Setting Bar High For Kick Return Unit

by on August 09, 2014 6:00 AM

Kickoff returns are perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of a football game. Commercials often come before and after a play that at best lasts a few seconds and rarely ends with anything to write home about.

But they can make a big difference if you have a player capable of making a big play.

Even so, the recent rule change to move the touchback result from the 20 to the 25 has made it even more appealing to simply sit back and take a knee. 25 yards can be a lot of ground to cover with 11 players sprinting at you to make sure that doesn't happen. So take the free field position. That's what the rule was changed for. To keep players healthy and to give teams an incentive not to risk injury.

For Penn State, the return unit has never really been a strong aspect of the Nittany Lions' game. Half of Penn State's season return average leaders only returned the ball 8 or 9 times that record setting season, a figure that doesn't even have them averaging a return per game.

So it would seem to be the best move to take the bait and just start at the 25. But a good return man could still get you a better result on average so the temptation is there if a team has the player to make a difference.

The most recent example, Chaz Powell's 27 return season for Penn State in 2011.

The following graphic is the last three years of Penn State's kick return unit averaged out per game against just taking a touchback. Essentially each value per week shows how far ahead or behind the 20 or 25 Penn State started on average.

For example, in Week 5 of the 2011 season, Penn State started 11 yards farther ahead than if the return man had opted to take the touchback.

There are a few things to take into consideration:

  • 2011 marked the final season that a touchback would be brought out to the 20 instead of the now 25 with as well as the ball being kicked from the 30 instead of the 35.

  • As a result a return in 2011 needs to travel 5 yards shorter to reach the yardage of a touchback with the kickoff unit starting 5 yards farther away. Even so, over the course of seven different weeks in 2011 the average was still farther down the field than the 25. Conversely in 2012 and 2013, Penn State failed to return the ball on average to the 20 on three different occasions, a mark that never happened in 2011.
  • As far as a total figure in 2011 kick returns failed to reach the 20 on 12 of 52 occasions. In 2013 the return unit failed to reach the 25 on 17 of 57 chances. Penn State started 23 drives following a kick return at the 25 in 2013 while starting only 8 drives at the 20 in 2011.

So do average performances over the years and the increased reward of starting at the 25 change the mentality moving forward?

"It doesn't change the way we approach it," Penn State's new special teams coach Charles Huff said. "We approach it, we attack. We have some set rules for our returner. If a kick falls within those rules then we bring it out, if it doesn't then we don't. We go over those rules daily in practice."

"But my basic philosophy is that if you can't make it from the back of the endzone to the 25 without somebody tackling you then you're probably not a very good returner."

Those rules Huff mentioned are fairly simple reminders of being situationally aware. The time on the clock, the score, an understanding of what the team needs at that particular juncture. Assuming all things are pointing towards a return it still requires the blocking, speed and quickness that has often lacked on Penn State's special team's units. Some of this has to do with sanctions and keeping the team's best players healthy.

That might change under Huff though who plans on putting the team's best foot forward when the special teams unit hits the field. Maybe Christian Hackenberg won't be returning kicks, but everyone is going to understand the importance of special teams.

For Huff it isn't just about getting good return numbers either, he views it as one of the three keys to getting the program headed in the right direction again.

"One is in recruiting," Huff says "You recruit better players you're probably going to win more games."

"Two is scheduling. We schedule to be productive. I'm not saying that you schedule cupcakes but you schedule to go out and be productive and don't schedule 25 knock-hard games. We play in a very competitive conference so each week we line up against tough teams."

"And three is special teams," Huff said. "That's the area that has the biggest change in field position and field position leads to more opportunities and more opportunities lead to more points or better defense. So that area often gets overlooked because offensively we scored more points, but if you can flip the field and put yourself in a better situation to score more points or defend better then that's really helpful."

While speed isn't the only thing a player needs to be a good returner, freshman DeAndre Thompkins is reportedly the fastest player on the team according to head coach James Franklin. If he or a similar skill position player can find a role on the increasingly important return unit, it could go a long way towards giving a Nittany Lion team looking for all the help it can get a little advantage.

"The players are beginning to see how much we value special teams," Huff said. "With the amount of time we put into it in meetings, in practice. The emphasis coach puts on these kinds of things at the end of practice. These kinds of things show value and show importance so now the players are beginning to understand the true value of special teams and being good on it."

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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