The chance for a return was there, so Malcolm Marable took it and sprinted forward.
Marable, the main kickoff return man for Oregon State, was looking for a big return to help break open Saturday’s game against Washington State.
The Cougars had just kicked a field goal to cut OSU’s lead to 13-6 in the fourth quarter.
Any open lane that Marable saw on that play closed quickly with Cougars.
Marable was swarmed at the OSU 14.
Not a good decision, particularly when a touchback now brings the ball to the 25.
A new rule is in place this season. Teams now kick off from the 35 instead of the 30.
Most kicks are sailing deep or out of the end zone and are unreturnable.
That makes for more touchbacks and fewer returns.
Player safety drove the decision to make the change.
“I think the players are bigger and faster and stronger than they’ve ever been and so the collisions are harder,” OSU special teams coach Bruce Read said. “I think that’s what they put it in for, was just to try to create less high-speed collisions with guys with 50-yard runs and then banging into each other.”
The rule has made an immediate impact on the kickoff return game.
In four games, the Beavers have five returns for 82 yards and their opponents returned eight for 146.
Among NCAA FBS members, 25 teams average more than 25 yards a return.
“With the line of scrimmage moved up five yards you’re seeing more touchbacks and you’re really seeing the kickoff return average is way down across the country,” Read said. “Everybody is struggling to get back out. It’s making that 25, the touchback, look a lot more inviting.”
Shorter kicks require snap decisions by the returners. The kick might be too high to return.
“Sometimes it’s real hard for the kids to judge how long the ball’s in the air,” Read said. “A kick, minus-5 (yards) – that has a 3.5 hang time – is a very returnable kick. But a kick 4.15 at minus-5, it’s going to be hard to get there because the cover team’s got time to get off the block. So it comes down to judging the height of the kickoff and the depth of the kickoff and it’s definitely made it much more challenging for the return team.”
That’s what happened on Marable’s fourth-quarter return.
By the time he caught the ball and started up the field, the defenders had extra time to break through.
“It was like a 4.21 hang time and at minus-5, that’s not a good one to take,” Read said. “But it’s hard. He doesn’t have a stopwatch.”
While Marable usually returns the kicks, Terron Ward is the No. 2 returner.
It’s his job to help Marable make the decision to take it out or hold back.
“We both make the decisions but it’s pretty much if I tell him to stay, he’ll stay,” Ward said. “Because I see the (field). He’s watching the ball and I’m watching the people coming down. So when the ball comes down, I see where he’s at and I tell him go or tell him to stay.”
Returning kickoffs now has even more in common with returning punts.
When it’s time to make a choice, it has to be made decisively. Any hesitation could prove disastrous.
“It’s tough but you just have to make a good decision and run with it and don’t second-guess,” Ward said. “If you make the decision, go. Once you start guessing, it takes more time and people are there. So make one decision and go.”
It’s a new mindset for players like Marable and Ward.
“KOR has always been a green light most of the time, let’s go, everybody’s going,” Read said. “So we’ve kind of put the skids on it, trying to say, OK, there’s times we’re not.”