How The USFL Kickoff Is Changing The Game In 2023

How The USFL Kickoff Is Changing The Game In 2023

The USFL has consistently looked to bring quality innovations to the game of football, since returning to the field in 2022. We’ve seen plenty of new rules, such as the overtime shootout. However, while it’s a simple adjustment, the USFL kickoff has changed the game in a major way.

In fact, this edition of a kickoff in professional football is causing coaches – and teams – to scheme differently on offense.

In this piece, we’ll specifically break down what the USFL kickoff brings to the table – and, analyze the data we’ve recorded through the first six weeks of action.

USFL Kickoff Rules

– The place kicker must send it away from their own 20 yard line, which starkly contrasts the NFL (35 yard line).
– Kicking team members must line up within one yard behind the 20 and must be stationary when the ball is kicked.
– Receiving teams must have 8-9 players in the “set up zone”, which is between the 30-40 yard line (kicking side).
– A touchback still places the football at the 25 yard line. However, a kick out of bounds puts the receiving team at midfield (NFL: 40).

The Purpose

The point of the 20 yard line rule is to encourage returns. In the NFL, kickers can kick the ball out of the end zone for a touchback at a high clip. This is why we’re seeing less than 40% of kickoffs being returned in the modern NFL.

However, in the USFL, a kicker would have to boot it over 80 yards for this to be possible. With the general kickoff falling between 60-75 yards, we’ve seen 94.1% of kickoffs returned in the USFL this season – an outstanding number.

In addition, the average starting field position for teams in the USFL is strikingly different from the NFL’s. With returners taking a majority of kicks from their own 10-20 yard line (as opposed to the end zone), we’re seeing offenses set up with preferable field position often.

Through six weeks, the average starting field position (after a kickoff) is the 37.8 yard line in the USFL. This includes touchbacks, and illegal kicks out of bounds.

In the NFL, with touchbacks being encouraged more and more with each passing year, the average starting field position hovers around the 25 yard line, which makes sense. However, the USFL has done everything they can do in their power to keep an exciting play in the game – and they’ve accomplished exactly that.

Week By Week Data

Here’s a look at what the average starting field position has been every week in the USFL:

Week 1: 40.5 yard line (season high)
Week 2: 36.8 yard line
Week 3: 39.0 yard line
Week 4: 36.1 yard line (season low)
Week 5: 37.6 yard line
Week 6: 36.3 yard line

Additional Data:

– 220 kickoffs through six weeks (24 games)
– 207 kicks returned (94.1%)
– 2 return touchdowns (0.91%)
– 9 touchbacks (4.09%)
– 4 illegal kicks (1.82%)

Impact In Action

An excellent example of the impact the USFL kickoff has had on the game came in week five. It was an intense battle between the New Jersey Generals and Philadelphia Stars, as New Jersey had tied the game with less than 30 seconds to play.

A shorter kick from Nic Sciba allowed Terry Wright to begin his return at the 21 yard line. Wright has been excellent all season long, and took it back 32 yards – into Generals’ territory.

Of course, we’ve all seen Luis Aguilar’s game-winning 55 yard field goal, as he had a remarkable outing that day to push Philadelphia to the victory. However, his final kick would not have been possible without the return of Terry Wright – which was set up directly because of how the USFL kickoff operates.

Mike Riley, head coach of the New Jersey Generals, acknowledged this in the post-game press conference:

“Something we found out – it’s actually a pretty neat rule, really changes the game – is how big the kickoff and kickoff coverage is in our league. The drive starts (field position), the big plays, it’s truly a major weapon as a return team. As a kickoff team, you’ve just got to hang on. Because I don’t think we held them to hardly anything better than the 50 today.”

Clearly, this rules adjustment not only generates more returns, but it also can change the outcome of a game at any given moment.

Return Specialists Shining

Something that the USFL has been able to highlight through two seasons is the importance of special teams. There’s a reason why KaVontae Turpin won MVP in 2022 – and then proceeded to make the NFL Pro Bowl as a member of the Dallas Cowboys.

In this league, return specialists have the opportunity to prove just how valuable they are to their respective teams. Again, with over 94% of kickoffs being returned, it gives these athletes an outlet to put valuable film on tape. For most of these players, their first steps to seeing consistent NFL playing time will begin on special teams.

There’s been several outstanding returners in the USFL this season. Week in and week out, these specialists have been sensational.

Deon Cain | Birmingham Stallions

Cain has been electrifying for the Stallions in 2023. Despite missing two weeks with an illness, he still leads the USFL in kickoff return yards, with 491 – averaging 28.9 YPR. In addition, he is solely responsible for the two KO return touchdowns of the season.

Eli Stove | New Orleans Breakers

For New Orleans, Eli Stove is doing his job extremely well. He’s been the lead returner for six weeks, racking up 472 yards, averaging 27.8 YPR.

Joshua Simmons | Pittsburgh Maulers

While Isiah Hennie has gotten a lot of attention in Pittsburgh as a punt returner (and for good reason), Joshua Simmons has been an underrated specialist for the Maulers. He’s averaging 29.9 YPR, including a long of 56 in week three. He’s consistently set up Pittsburgh’s offense with solid field position.

Reggie Corbin | Michigan Panthers

The former All-USFL performer has been doing it all for Michigan this season, proving he can be more than just a running back. After not being involved much on special teams during the 2022 campaign, Reggie has compiled 446 KO return yards this year. In addition, he’s averaging 24.8 YPR, alongside a long of 55 yards.

Kerrith Whyte | Memphis Showboats

After Rashard Davis went down with an injury in week three, Kerrith Whyte stepped up in a major way for Memphis. He’s averaging 32 YPR, which is a league high for any player with more than one kick return.

Terry Wright | Philadelphia Stars

Chris Rowland was on pace to be one of the league’s leaders in all-purpose yards, doing everything at a high level. Unfortunately, he was ruled out for the 2023 season a couple of weeks ago, meaning Terry Wright would have to fill that role. Wright has been excellent, averaging 31.7 YPR through three weeks – including the big-time highlight in week five which led to the Stars’ second victory.

Anthony Ratliff-Williams | Houston Gamblers

The talented wide receiver has contributed in more ways than one to the Houston Gamblers’ recent success. Anthony Ratliff-Williams has 378 kickoff return yards this season, averaging 27 YPR.

Warren Newman III | New Jersey Generals

The Generals have seen some turnover on special teams, as the unit still attempts to discover a replacement for Turpin. Over the past couple of weeks, Warren Newman has been the go-to guy on kickoffs for Mike Riley – averaging 24.3 YPR.

Final Thoughts

Spring football is all about bringing innovation, creativity, and excitement to the game we love. The USFL kickoff accomplishes that goal, retaining a play that football fans across the country can continue to enjoy.

At the same time, this specific rule is creating opportunities for specialists to prove themselves at a professional level. It’s been an entertaining play to watch through six weeks, and we’re looking forward to seeing the continued impact it has as season two comes to a close.

What are your thoughts on the USFL kickoff? Which USFL specialists have you enjoyed watching this season? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!