Utah State’s Savon Scarver led the country with a 33.7-yard kick return average last season among returners who played in at least 75 percent of their team’s games and averaged at least 1.2 kick returns per game played, according to cfbstats.com.
The rising junior wide receiver amassed 742 kick return yards on 22 returns, so on average, he ran roughly one-third of the way from one end zone to the other on each return.
But how does Scarver’s game-changing ability as a return man affect Utah State’s offense and its ability to score compared to, say, Akron returner Jeremiah Knight, whose 15.3-yard kick return average ranked last among the 81 returners last season who met the criteria outlined above?
Stadium examined more than 6,500 drives from college football teams last season to analyze the relationship between field position and scoring rate, ignoring drives in which a team didn’t have enough time to even get within field goal range at the end of the first half or drives at the end of a game in which a team was trying to run out the clock.
Drives that started on the offensive team’s 33-yard line — roughly where Utah State’s offense would take over if Scarver fielded a kickoff at the goal line and matched his average return — resulted in a score 49.4 percent of the time.
Drives that started on the 15-yard line, roughly where Knight would be tackled based on his average kick return if he caught the ball at the goal line, yielded a scoring drive just 31.4 percent of the time.
That’s nearly a 20 percent difference in scoring success from one of the most productive kick returners in the country to one of the least productive.
(Obviously scoring rate can change based on the quality of the opponent, a team’s ability to move the ball on offense, the range of the team’s kicker, weather conditions, etc.)
So special teams play, which ranges from a kicker whose kickoffs consistently result in touchbacks or returners whose kick return average is in the neighborhood of 30 yards, can play a critical role even though special teams is the smallest — by play count — of the three phases of football.
Drives that start at the 40-yard line are roughly where college football teams’ scoring percentage cracks 50 percent, so the receiving team basically has a coin-flip chance of scoring when the kicking team’s kickoff sails out of bounds and the ball is placed at the 40.
Keep that in mind the next time you see a head coach rip off his headset in disgust or utter a flurry of expletives after his kicker sends his kickoff out of bounds in a close game.
Obviously, the success rate of drives improves as teams get closer to the opponent’s end zone.
Among the 60 drives examined that started inside the opponent’s 10-yard line, teams scored on 59 of them — a 98.3 success rate.
On the other hand, teams scored on just 25.8 percent of their drives that started inside their own 10-yard line, according to a sample size of 541 drives.
Here’s how a team’s scoring rate improves based on where they take over on offense. We segmented yard lines into groups of five — with the 50-yard line getting its own entry.
|Range||Scoring Rate||Number of Drives Examined|
Ironically, the worst scoring rate for drives that started at any yard line, among the drives examined, was the opponent‘s 24-yard line. That’s a 41-yard field goal and just four yards from the red zone.
Only nine of the more than 6,500 drives examined started at the opponent’s 24-yard line, but the teams examined combined for just one scoring drive that started from the opponent’s 24 — an 11.1 percent success rate — courtesy of Miami (FL).
Arizona and Northwestern turned the ball over on downs after starting drives at the opponent’s 24.
Boston College, Duke, Kansas and Oregon State each missed a field goal after taking over at the opponent’s 24-yard line.
Georgia Tech fumbled and LSU threw an interception.
Of course, that 11.1 percent success rate among the drives examined that started at the opponent’s 24-yard line was a result of both a statistical anomaly and a small sample size for that specific yard line.
Among the drives examined, teams scored on 28 of 36 drives (77.8%) that started at the opponent’s 25-yard line and 15 of 17 drives (88.2%) that started at the opponent’s 23, so teams have somewhere between a 70 and 90 percent chance of scoring if they take over on offense in that part of the field.
It’s fairly difficult for returners to consistently reach that deep into enemy territory on kick returns, which is why kickoffs have the lowest scoring rate of the eight main ways that a drive can start.
They’re listed below in descending order of scoring rate, along with how many of the drives examined started that way.
|How Drive Started||Scoring Rate||Number of Drives|
|Free Kick After Safety||58.3%||24|
|Turnover On Downs||47.1%||331|
Keep these percentages in mind as you think about the strengths and weaknesses of a football team and how the three phases of the game — offense, defense and special teams — impact each other.