LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas specialist Zach Hocker is going to do his part to promote safety on kickoffs.
No cutesy kicks, no halfhearted floaters inside the 10, no destination but the end zone, the kicker said.
The approach, in collaboration with head coach John L. Smith, was something of a surprise. When the NCAA decided in February to move the kickoff and touchback lines, I wondered if teams would try exotic kickoffs to avoid giving up five yards of field position.
Beginning this season, teams will move up five yards and kick from the 35 and players on the coverage team cannot line up behind the 30-yard line, reducing the running starts by those barreling downfield. After a touchback on a kickoff, the offense will take over at the 25 instead of the 20.
The changes, similar to those by the NFL last season, were recommended after data suggested kickoffs are the most dangerous plays in the game. With the new rule in place, barely half of the kickoffs in the NFL were returned, down from 80 percent in 2010.
Shortly after Smith was hired to replace Bobby Petrino and returned from Weber State, Hocker stopped by to visit. Eventually, the new rule came up.
“We both feel if it is beneficial if I keep getting touchbacks, even if the ball comes out to the 25,” Hocker said. “If I’m chipping the ball and dropping it inside the 5, there is more room for me to mess up and more chance for the return team to do something.”
Golfers trying to gear down their swing and hit half shots are in the same predicament, more apt to be off on their timing than when they swing aggressively. “If I’m chipping the ball, I’m not necessarily going to hit the ball clean,” Hocker said.
He said Smith talked with defensive coordinator Paul Haynes and assistant head coach Taver Johnson and that everyone liked the idea that the defense would begin every post-kickoff assignment from the same spot.
If asked, Hocker can author a wrinkle or two. “My summer routine consists of lots of stuff, lots of different styles of onside kicks, directional kicking,” he said. “My main goal is to keep on hitting touchbacks.”
Kicking from the 30, he had 40 touchbacks in 2011, first in the Southeastern Conference and second in the NCAA, and his touchback percentage of 43.01 was No. 3 in the country. From the 35, “I don’t see why I shouldn’t hit them all touchbacks,” he said matter-of-factly. “You want to go 100 percent.”
Same with field goals, he said, knowing that every kicker misses on occasion. Hocker was 16-of-19 in 2010 with a long of 51 and 21-of-27 last year with a 50-yarder.
“As far as range goes, coach Smith knows my reasonable range, where it’s 100 percent, where it’s 80 percent,” Hocker said. “If he asks me to kick a 70-yard field goal, I’m not going to complain but, at the same time, that’s not realistic. I trust him 100 percent.”
Hocker’s route to Arkansas has been well documented, how a Louisiana kicker reneged on his Razorback commitment in favor of Texas, opening up a scholarship for the young man from Russellville. Until then, coach Clint Conque thought Hocker would be at the University of Central Arkansas.
Asked if he remembered the kicker who defected, Hocker hesitated before saying, “I think his last name was Russ.” Correct, first name William.
Russ has not kicked a lick for the Longhorns and might never. He and another kicker missed all three live attempts in a spring practice, all less than 40 yards. Meanwhile, Anthony Fera, perfect on 11 field goal attempts inside 40 yards at Penn State, has transferred to Texas.
Funny how things work out.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.