How will the Bucs take advantage of the NFL’s new kickoff rules?

TAMPA — This NFL season, when the football is kicked off, turning point over point and traveling stripe over stripe, there will be real anticipation of an electric play that could result in a touchdown instead of the tedious groan of another touchback.

The NFL has made a significant change that is designed to reduce injuries but increase and incentivize a play that had all but vanished from the pro game.

“I love it. I think it’s good for the game,” said new Bucs special teams coach Thomas McGaughey. “It’s not a ceremonial play anymore. I think it’s something that can really affect the game in a positive way. I think it’s one of those deals when people are going to be surprised about how impactful the play is.”

Last season, the probability of a touchback on a kickoff was 78%, meaning about 1 in 5 kickoffs were even returned. In essence, the league could have decided to place the football at the 25-yard line.

With the new rules, the league will potentially add 2,000 plays that could produce touchdowns.

The change is taken from the model used by the XFL in 2020 and 2023.

Here’s how it works:

The ball still will be kicked from the 35-yard line and returners will start in much the same place they always have.

But the other 20 players will be positioned differently on the field to reduce injuries and promote the chance a play will happen.

The 10 players on the kicking team will line up at the opposing 40-yard line. At least nine players from the return team must line up between their own 35- and 30-yard lines. Standing only 5 or 10 yards apart, those players cannot move until the kickoff is caught.

While players can still decide to return a kickoff from their own end zone, a touchback will now place the ball at the 30-yard line instead of the 25. If the ball reaches the landing zone between the 20 and the goal line but bounds into the end zone, it can be a touchback but the ball is spotted at the 20-yard line.

McGaughey said the Bucs have not addressed the new rules with players yet during this phase of the offseason workout program, but there is still plenty of time for that.

“We’re going to get there,” he said. “We just got to make sure everything is tightened up before we kind of go down that road. It’s football. It’s just going to be a little adjustment here, a little adjustment there. ... The game is not going to change. The play is not going to change. All it is going to do is take out 30 yards running. The play is going to be the play.”

Perhaps, but it has broad implications.

Suddenly, there is greater potential for another game-changing or scoring play. Last season, only four kickoffs were returned for touchdowns, representing the fewest in 40 years.

By comparison, in its heyday, there were 25 touchdowns on kickoff returns in 2007 and 23 in 2010.

The Bucs have not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since 2010 when Michael Spurlock brought one back 89 yards in a 27-21 loss to the Falcons.

That’s not to be confused with when Spurlock became the first Bucs player to return a kickoff for a touchdown when he went 90 yards for a score in the first quarter against the Falcons in 2007. That ended a drought of 32 seasons and 1,865 tries without reaching the end zone.

The new rules will have an impact on the type of players McGaughey will utilize on the kickoff.

Because of the close proximately of players when the play begins, there will be a lot of one-on-one blocking battles.

Teams may opt to use bigger players, especially in the middle of the field.

Because more kickoffs are likely to be returned and with more defenders in a short space, running backs may make better options to return kickoffs than speedy receivers who like to work in space. The same is true when the kicking team sets its personnel.

“It just depends on who the guy back there is returning the ball, or guys,” McGaughey said. “I think it depends on potentially the guys covering down. Do you have the body types? Schematically, has the coach figured out what he wants to do and how he wants to do it?

“It’s going to all depend on a lot of that.”

Since rookies often have to contribute on special teams in order to be active on Sundays, a player such as Oregon running back Bucky Irving could be in the mix to win the kickoff return job.

“I think to a man, when you look at all these guys, they have some type of really good attributes teams-wise,” McGaughey said of the Bucs’ rookies. “Whether they’re big, strong, fast, quick — they all have something. That’s a good thing. That’s good for them and it’s good for us. (General manager) Jason (Licht) and the guys did a great job of pulling out and identifying the talent and picking them, the guys who are going to fit. You just never know.”

The Bucs’ primary kickoff returner last season was receiver Deven Thompkins, who has a career 21.1 kickoff return average.

What makes a good kickoff returner?

“I would say two things: You’ve got to have really good speed and you’ve got to be fearless,” McGaughey said. “... I call it running through the smoke. Sometimes you don’t know it’s a long valley but you’ve got to run through it. You’ve got to hit that gas when you go through it. You’ve also got to have real good vision, that second-level vision to make the first guy miss and just seeing beyond to the second level.

“Those guys are really special that have that really good vision.”

With the new rules, a kickoff return for a touchdown could be in their sights.

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