Marshall notebook: Touchbacks way up, as expected, in Conference USA
In a fully expected result of the NCAA's bid to de-emphasize the noble discipline of returning kickoffs, the number of touchbacks among Conference USA teams has skyrocketed.
In all of the 2011 season, as kickers were booting from the 30-yard line, the 12 C-USA teams combined for 148 touchbacks. After three weeks, with kickoff moved forward to the 35, the league has already racked up 80.
The increase in ratio is much more instructive, even frightening for special-teams purists.
Last year, only Texas-El Paso averaged one touchback in three boots, with two others topping one in four. Now, six conference teams are getting touchbacks on 50 percent or more of their kickoffs, with UTEP at 10 of 12 and Memphis at 12 of 15.
Marshall kickers Justin Haig and Trent Martin have recorded just one touchback in 20 kicks. The kickers haven't exhibited Janikowski-like legs, but Thundering Herd coaches prefer kicks inside the 5-yard line with good hang time.
So far, the numbers are backing up the strategy. The Herd is third in the league in the little-cited kickoff-coverage stat, netting 41.2 yards per attempt. In other words, opponents are averaging a start at the 23.8-yard line - thus beating the 25-yard line touchback by an average 1.2 yards.
Against Marshall, opponents are averaging a net of 39.6 yards per kickoff, giving the Herd average field position of the 25.4-yard line. So the Herd actually enjoys a lead in the kickoff category.
It doesn't always feel that way for MU's Andre Snipes-Booker, whose 20.9-yard return average is sixth in the league. He isn't used to routinely fielding kicks 8 yards deep in the end zone and taking a knee.
And when Snipes-Booker can return those kicks, he sees the kickoff team's fastest members a lot quicker than before. He said the rule limiting the kickoff team's run-up to 5 yards has had no effect.
"They're down there a lot faster," he said. "They're closer [to start with], and that's the thing. If the kicker gets good enough height, I could easily catch the ball and they'd be right in my face."
Snipes-Booker might not get many chances today, either. Rice's Chris Boswell has bopped 11 of his 16 kickoffs to the point of no return.
A season in Conference USA wouldn't feel right without a Lou Groza Award candidate, and Boswell seems better than a run-of-the-mill watch-lister. Last week at Louisiana Tech, he became the Owls' all-time leader in field goals with 34 and did it in style, banging home a 57-yarder.
That was his seventh career field goal of 50-plus yards, tying him with Florida State's Caleb Sturgis among active kickers. He has missed just once in seven tries this season and owns a 45-yard, last-play kick to give the Owls their win over Kansas.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130 or firstname.lastname@example.org.