Auburn A-Day

Auburn kicker Anders Carlson (26) kicks a field goal during the Auburn A-Day game on Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Auburn, Ala.

AUBURN — The four games scheduled to kick off the 2018 college football season this Saturday — Duquesne at UMass, Prairie View at Rice, Hawaii at Colorado State and Wyoming at New Mexico State — have no bearing on Auburn.

But if Larry Porter can find a few spare moments as he does his part to prepare the No. 10 Tigers for a top-10 showdown with No. 6 Washington on Sept. 1 in Atlanta, he might flip one of them on.

He, like the rest of the special teams coordinators across college football, have been charged with navigating the new rule regarding kickoff the NCAA passed in April. Those four games Saturday will mark the first time it has been enacted on the field.

“You've got to adapt and adjust,” Porter said last week. “What we've got to do is continue to look at ways to take advantage of the rules and allow them to benefit us. I think we've done that.”

The previous rule — if you’re not familiar — stated that any kickoff that crossed the goal line was a touchback, which automatically placed the ball on the 25-yard line. Every other kick was returnable.

That remains the case in the new rule, with one change: Any ball fair caught inside the 25-yard line will now also be considered a touchback and placed on the 25-yard line.

It may seem somewhat inconsequential, but it is a wrinkle that every team will try to take advantage of in their own way.

When touchbacks were moved from the 20- to 25-yard line in 2012, teams began thinking of ways to pin teams inside the 25. That has become much more difficult now that those balls can be fair caught and moved forward, but you can be sure coaches will draw up new twists.

Auburn will have to figure out not only what it will ask its return men do when they field kicks, but also what it will ask either its place-kickers to do when they kick the ball off.

“There’s strategy involved. That’s part of coaching, is to direct them when to and when not to. So I think you’ll see most teams be very strategic with that,” head coach Gus Malzahn said earlier this fall. “There’s a lot of different things that kickoff teams do. They overload, they weave, they do a lot of things to mess up number counts, so I think most teams will really use that to their advantage. If it’s a really complicated system and there’s things you have to do, you could see a little bit more fair catching.

“But I know Larry’s got a plan.”

Porter’s plan as of now is to “approach it as if every kick is a returnable one,” both when Auburn is kicking the ball off and receiving the kick.

On the receiving end, that makes sense. Only 50 percent of the kickoffs against Auburn last season went for touchbacks. The team’s starting field position on drives that began with kickoffs was close to the 27-yard line. And the four players the Tigers have focused on as return men have the potential to be dangerous weapons in that aspect of the game if blocked for up front.

Returning starter Noah Igbinoghene averaged 23.8 yards a kick return last season, which ranked 42nd nationally. Malzahn has said more than once that he thinks the sophomore cornerback can be one of the best in the country in that regard. The other three players — running back Shaun Shivers and wide receivers Anthony Schwartz and Matthew Hill — are true freshmen, but two of them are among the fastest players in the country.

Schwartz actually is the fastest, as he owns the youth world record in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.15 seconds. The 5-foot-7 Shivers came in third place behind Schwartz at the Florida Class 2A state championships with a time of 10.39, and he was a 2,000-yard rusher as a senior for state champion Chaminade-Madonna Prep.

“Well, I feel like there's definitely some talent back there to choose from. That I am excited about,” Porter said.

On the other end of the field, Auburn ranked 11th nationally with a touchback percentage of a little more than 69 percent, kicking the ball into the end zone on 65 of 94 kicks. But that was with four-year standout Daniel Carlson doing the kicking and with the old rules in place.

Anders Carlson will replace his older brother as the place-kicker this season, but Malzahn left open the possibility that reserve kicker Ian Shannon could handle the kickoff duties. The Tigers’ strategy in that aspect will have as much to do with their own ability to cover kicks as it does the new rules — they ranked dead last nationally allowing 27.2 yards a kickoff return.

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