Nebraska
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska, Onside Kicks and Beating the Odds

August 30, 2019

Jovan Dewitt has called for an onside kick only three times in his career.

The first came in 2014, his first as the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach at Army West Point.

Trailing 17-10 late in the fourth quarter, Army attempted the onside kick. Navy’s Thomas Wilson recovered with 1:49 left and the Midshipmen ran out the clock to secure the win.

Dewitt’s second attempt at an onside kick came with Central Florida in 2016. Down 24-14 in the second quarter, Dewitt, alongside then-UCF head coach Scott Frost, wanted to keep the momentum on the Knights’ side and went for the onside kick.

(Jump to 2:41 in the video if you don’t open in new window.)

While Central Florida’s kicker executed a perfect onside kick, the play—which is technically a nonreviewable play by rule—was put under review. The player who recovered the ball—Tre Neal, who later transferred to Nebraska when Frost and his staff made thier move—had stepped out of bounds. UCF was forced to attempt the onside kick again, but USF was ready on the second go-around and recovered.

Dewitt’s third onside kick call? Well, we’re going to pretend that one never happened.

A role that sort of fell on him through volunteering at Army (“That’s how most people get that role,” he joked), coaching special teams has turned into something much more for Dewitt. He has degrees in physics and mathematics. He turned down a job at NASA to coach football. He loves statistics and finding ways to beat the odds.

While the odds haven’t exaclty been in Dewitt’s favor on onside kicks to date, it’s that kind of challenge that excites him the most.

*** 

The success rate of onside kicks is low. Over the last two years, only 14.7% of onside kicks across all Division I programs have been successful.

“In the Big Ten, it's 10%,” Dewitt said one day following a Nebraska fall camp practice. “What you look at is it's a one out of 10, or a one out of seven chance, give or take, to recover it.

“Now what's the score? How much are you down? Do they move when they receive a kick? All those things become a factor and might help you out. Where's the kicker? Is he good at it? Is he not good at it?”

The odds—alongside all of those questions—are important. Nothing is left to chance, especially something like an onside kick. Dewitt’s job is to weight all the odds for success.

“Look at it like this, it's late in the game, you're at a fourth-and-a-country mile situation,” he said. “So, what's your percentage chance of making it? Is that better or worse if you were to kick an onside kick right away? So, let's say it's a country mile, and you have a 10% chance of making your first down, would you do that?”

Maybe a team has enough time and confidence in the defense.

“Or maybe you take a safety into the deep and try and have fun depending upon who's got a stronger wave, where the wind is going,” Dewitt said.

It all comes down to one question: Which percentage is higher?

But that decision isn’t made on game day in the heat of the moment. In fact, that decision is put in motion as early as fall camp. Dewitt puts a focus on the fundamentals of a normal kickoff over the first 10 or so days of camp. After that, he’ll introduce onside kicks. The team will review different clips over the years—including those linked above—and dissect the good, the bad and everything in between.

“We will spend probably three or four days on it, but, of course, we can't dedicate too much to it,” Dewitt said. “It's a situation that may not come up in the whole year.”

***

Sophomore kicker Barret Pickering would be the guy to onside kick for Nebraska if the opportunity presents itself. He kicked three in high school, with one successfully being recovered by his team. That gives Pickering a 33.3% success rate, which is currently better than the average.

But he wouldn’t call himself an expert, nor has he met anyone that considers themselves one.

“I haven't come across anybody who's quite claimed to be an expert,” Pickering said. “Maybe their team would have way more success than other teams, and there are certain types of onside kicks that some kickers might be good at.”

Former UCF kicker Donald Delahaye is one of those players that might be considered an expert, or at least close to one. Most people will remember Delahaye as the player ruled inelgible by the NCAA over a YouTube channel.

Interestingly enough, one of Delahaye’s videos from 2017 is simply titled, “How to Kick an Onside.” (Editor’s note: The video was unlisted in 2017 in light of the NCAA’s investigation, but it’s still viewable through the hyperlink.)

While Delahaye does a nice job breaking it down, it’s not quite that simple in the moment. Especially a high-pressure moment.

“On an onside kick, you have to hit the ball just exactly like you picture it,” Pickering said. “Then you also have to rely on the defense not perfectly covering how we all planned on hitting it in a way. You've got to hit a good ball and it's got to be poorly-defended. 

“The other team has to make a mistake, almost.”

*** 

As Nebraska prepares for a new season ahead, onside kicking is part of the discussion. Even if the Huskers never attempt one in 2019, they’ll be ready if they have to. In fact, Nebraska is as ready for just about anything that can happen by the time game day rolls around. The coaches don’t want to discuss the “what ifs” in the moment, and they don’t want emotion to cloud their judgement.

“We have a situational review session with the head coach once a week,” Dewitt said. “We try to make sure that we're on the same page so that we're not making decisions on the sidelines without the information handy. You present every different case scenario you can once a week to the head coach, because you educate the players, you educate the staff on decisions. That way you're not just making it willy nilly.”

Those meetings—and decisions—are made as early as Monday or Tuesday night in season. That gives the staff plenty of time to evaluate odds and present the various options. Once game day rolls around, all those potential scenarios are already mapped out and ready to go if called upon.

“The decision is what the decision is then,” Dewitt said. “We've already made the decision and we know what to do.”

While players like Pickering might not spend a lot of time every week preparing for an onside kick, they still need to be thinking about it.

“Maybe not a ton, but somebody has got to keep it in the back of your mind like it happens every week,” Pickering said. “However things match up, we'll always have a game plan in place for every scenario.”

When Nebraska kicks off against South Alabama on Saturday, the Huskers will have no idea what the game—or the season, for that matter—might hold. But they’ll be ready.

You have to be if you want to beat the odds.

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