[TL;DR: Kick it deep, Dave! We need more touchbacks!]
One of the primary gripes this year among NC State football fans has been the kickoff philosophy of head coach Dave Doeren. That philosophy is to kick the ball just short of the end zone, angled towards the sideline. This approach uses the sideline to narrow the available field for the return man, thus providing a tighter window for the coverage team to get downfield and make a stop inside the 25 yardline (where the team would get the ball via a touchback). In theory, the coverage team makes the stop inside the 25-yardline, thus putting the defense in a better starting position than it would be via a touchback. In practice, what appears to be Doeren trying to provide a strategic advantage for his team has been more like him playing with fire - and coming close to getting badly burned.
So far in 2018, NC State has kicked the ball off 31 times, with 9 touchbacks (a 29.0% touchback rate). Kickoff specialist Kyle Bambard has averaged 60.7 yards per kickoff, which means on average, his kickoffs are landing between the 4- and 5-yardline. That’s probably about 3-to-4 yards farther out from the goal line than Doeren would like, but still not far off from the intended target (especially if the yardage is exchanged for increased hang time - but that data is, sadly, not available). Bambard has the leg to get the ball into the end zone (7 of his 9 touchbacks came in the first two games of the year, including 5 vs Georgia State), so this isn’t Doeren’s hand being forced by his personnel.
The real issue is with with kickoff coverage. Opposing teams have returned 19 kickoffs this year (the unaccounted for 2 kickoffs were fair catches in the field of play) with an average return of 22.1 yards. This means that opponents are starting their drives, on average, between the 26- and 27-yardline on kicks they return. In other words, if you’re an NC State opponent, it’s to your advantage to return that kickoff if it’s not in the end zone.
This has resulted in NC State’s kickoff team posting just a 67.7% success rate this year (kickoff success rate is the percentage of kickoffs that net at least 40 yards from the spot of the kick), a figure that ranks 105th in the nation and 13th in the ACC. While the ACC might be down in terms of overall performance, seven of the league’s teams rank in the top 30 in the country in kickoff success rate, with Virginia Tech leading the way at 100.0% (35 touchbacks on 37 kickoffs).
The 1.4 yard difference between touchbacks and the average starting field position on returned kicks (a 5.6% difference) might seem relatively insignificant at first glance (it’s not, though), but that fails to factor in the risk associated with kickoffs not landing harmlessly in the end zone for touchbacks. Kickoffs are returned for TDs only around 1.2% of the time, but why even take the chance when you’re already losing the field position battle? Not to mention the wear and tear and potential injury to your coverage team.
All things considered, it would be wise for Dave Doeren and NC State to reconsider their current kickoff philosophy.