PITTSBURGH — Pitt kick returner Maurice Ffrench took the opening kickoff of the 2018 season all the way to the house for a 91-yard touchdown against Albany back in September.
It sure looked like Pitt had replaced Quadree Henderson, who departed a year early for the NFL after an All-American season as a return man in 2017, and had another impact returner.
Since then, that hasn’t necessarily happened. Ffrench is tied for 26th in the country in kick return average, which is certainly a positive. But it doesn’t really tell the whole story.
He’s had just seven more kickoff returns since he took one to the end zone, and it’s not for lack of opportunity. Pitt’s defense has give up points in droves, meaning that there have been plenty of opposing kickoffs. But Ffrench and freshman Mychale Salahuddin, who has spelled him at times, haven’t been returning many.
That’s because of a new rule instituted at the beginning of the 2018 season that allows any kickoff to be fair caught and the ball placed at the 25 yard line, whether or not it goes into the end zone. Pitt has taken advantage, frequently having French make a fair catch when he fields a kickoff from inside the five-yard line.
“We did a study before the year,” head coach Pat Narduzzi explained. “We gave our — Maurice Ffrench a rule. Coach Powell did a great job. You stand on the goal line inside the hash, and if you have to take one step backwards or you take one step to the right, you fair catch it because it’s just too hard to get it timed up. … ”
We looked a year ago, we would have had better field position the entire year based on if we would have just fair caught every ball. We even talked about it beginning of the season, you take one to the house and you start to get greedy and think, let’s go make a play. Maurice is pretty special, and he’s a special player. … it’s not just about the returner. It’s not just about where he catches it, it’s about those guys blocking for you and the guys coming down that are on scholarship, too, so I think there’s a lot to it.”
Pitt kicker Alex Kessman’s strong leg has sent most of his kickoffs this season into or out of the end zone. When he doesn’t as was the case for one of kickoffs against Syracuse, Pitt’s coverage team has done well to make other teams pay for attempting a return.
“Our kickoff team, we have some guys that can go down there and hit,” Kessman said. “I try to send it through [the end zone] no matter what. I could hit it different, I could hit it bad, then we have to go cover, but I have full believe that we can keep them inside the 25.”
So it seems that the smart play is to almost always call for the fair catch. If that becomes the trend, would there be a point to kicking the ball off? Narduzzi isn’t quite ready to take it that far yet?
“For a game to start off without a kickoff would be kind of be sacrilegious kind of, a little bit,” he said. “Just kick it off in the end zone, start at the 25 and let’s go, just so we can let the kickers do something. They’re on scholarship, too. They get paid a lot of money just to kick field goals and extra points. Might as well at least see if they’ve got [strong] legs.”