By Brad Fauber
The reasons for doing so vary, but more and more high school football teams are shying away from traditional kickoffs, instead electing for shorter, more complex variations of the play.
Some teams rely heavily on the squib kick, sending the ball bouncing across the turf to keep the ball away from a dangerous return man or, even better, cause the return team to mishandle the recovery and put the football up for grabs.
Others prefer utilizing a high, short kick, typically referred to as a "pooch kick" or "sky kick," with the goal being to force a member of the kick return team to call a fair catch and eliminate a return altogether.
Several schools, like Warren County, use a combination of different short kicks while also mixing in a few deep kickoffs throughout a typical game.
"I think the reason that all kicking games are kind of evolving is that it just went from, 'OK, let's just kick it off and kick it deep,' and everybody could count on that," said Wildcats coach Tony Tallent. "We like to have a variety in what we do so people can't just scheme up, 'I'm going to get a deep kick, either to the middle, the left or right.' There's going to be more to it."
The biggest motivating factor for relying on shorter kickoffs, especially at smaller schools, is based on the simple fact that it is rare to find a kicker in high school who can consistently put the ball in the end zone for a touchback.
High school offenses are at a big disadvantage when forced to start from their own 20-yard line, but most young kickers can barely reach the 15- or 20-yard line on a standard kickoff from the 40-yard line, let alone reach the goal line. That means a return of just 15 yards puts the opponent in nearly the same field position as would a short kickoff to the 35.
"You're giving up field position [by kicking short], but if you kick it deep, the ball can be returned to just about where they recover it if you squib it. So, that's kind of our way of thinking," Strasburg coach Mark Roller said. "We decided we're just going to squib it, and sometimes it catches the kickoff return team off guard. But by now everybody knows that we do it on a consistent basis and it's just part of our game plan every week."
The increased reliance by teams on short kickoffs has proved frustrating to kick return men who thrive on making the big play on special teams.
Central junior Daniel Molina said he has noticed a growing reluctance by Falcons opponents to kick the ball in his direction, which comes as no surprise given Molina's big-play ability in the return game.
Molina has returned several kicks for touchdowns over the past few seasons, including a 96-yard kickoff return for a score this season against Stonewall Jackson on Aug. 31. Molina said teams began avoiding him after he opened last year's regular-season finale against Strasburg with an 80-yard kick return touchdown.
"I don't think it's fair. Every time it's either going to Justin [Bauserman] or the front line," Molina said. "They don't even give me a chance to return it.
"Special teams is a big part of how we do things. When other teams take that away, we've got to fight with our offense and defense even more."
Executing a squib or sky kick isn't as simple as it may sound. Such kicks require greater accuracy than a typical kickoff, and a failure to execute the kick properly could send the ball sailing out of bounds for a procedure penalty.
The kick could also be sent too long, and the ball could end up in the hands of a dangerous return man, which is something a short kick is supposed to eliminate.
"If your kicker doesn't get it where it needs to be, then you run the risk of giving them the ball at the 40. You certainly don't want to do that," said Central coach Mike Yew. "We live with the theory that if we can be inside the 35 ... we feel pretty good about making them go 65 or 70 yards."
Squib kicks can be especially challenging, since the kicker has no control over the how the ball will bounce after it initially hits the turf.
"It's not easy, by all means. Sometimes you get a good kick, sometimes you just blow a kick and it goes out of bounds and you give the other team good field position," said senior Aaron Jeremiah, who handles the kicking duties for Skyline. "You can aim it, but you can't control it. You just kick it hard and low to the ground and hope it stays on a certain path."
Kicking the ball short also may have safety implications. Roller and Skyline coach Heath Gilbert both said they think squibs and high kicks lead to less high-speed contact on returns, as players typically fall on the football or call a fair catch.
Whatever the reason, many teams are finding that the advantages of short kickoffs outweigh the risks. Preparing for such kicks has now become a staple of most teams' weekly game plan.
"You've got to be able to react to whatever teams are going to try to do to you, and you've just got to practice it more," Gilbert said. "If you have a good sky kick, where they have to fair catch it or they're going to get crushed, you're guaranteed that's where they're going to start. That's the best weapon to have."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org