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  • Writer's pictureNoah Beausoleil

Field Flipper's Handbook: UFL Special Teams Rules and What You Need to Know

With the start of the inaugural season just over a month away, the UFL has released its official 2024 Rule Book, bringing several changes to the special teams department. Drawing inspiration from the USFL and the XFL, the new league introduces innovative special teams rules aimed at making the product on the field more exciting while also promoting a higher standard of player safety. To ensure you're well-prepared before kickoff, I've meticulously scoured the 124-page document to bring you the important bits you need to know.

 

Kickoffs

In a surprising move that shocked much of the alt-football community, the UFL announced that it will not be utilizing the XFL-style kickoff, opting to instead embrace the USFL-style kickoff that more closely resembles the style employed by the NFL. By kicking off at the 20-yard line, the UFL kickoff will aim to incentivize more returns and reduce the number of touchbacks seen throughout the season.

The NFL's kickoff, positioned at the 35-yard line, has often been criticized for its predictability, with nearly every kick resulting in a touchback. Notably, Super Bowl 58 marked the first in NFL history without a single kickoff return, emphasizing the need for a change. The UFL's decision to move the kickoff back 15 yards poses a challenge for Kickers, requiring an 80-yard kick for a touchback—a feat achieved just 7.5% of the time last year in the USFL.


During the 2023 USFL season, kickoffs travelled for an average of 68 yards downfield, which means it was caught at the return team's 12-yard line. In turn, Return Specialists recorded an average of 26 yards per return, meaning that the average starting field position in the USFL was the 38-yard line. The UFL's touchback, which comes out to the 25-yard line, emphasizes the importance of Kickers who can consistently record Touchbacks, providing their team the best chances of winning the field position battle.

Also returning from the USFL is the rule regarding kickoffs that go out-of-bounds. Designed to encourage Kickoff Specialists to avoid kicking the ball toward the sidelines, an errant kick that finds its way out of bounds results in the receiving team taking possession of the ball at the 50-yard line or the spot where the ball exited play.

On a personal note, while I have no qualms about the UFL's decision to adopt the USFL-style kickoffs, I am saddened to say goodbye to the strategy-heavy XFL-style kickoffs. The inclusion of Major/Minor Touchbacks added a directional element rarely seen in football and the blocking schemes we saw during the last half of the XFL season were incredibly clever. Further, it's worth noting that while kickoff specialists will be allowed to use a tee to elevate the ball off the ground, if the ball falls off the tee twice during the same kickoff, the kicking team must resort to using a player to hold the ball. This means we will no longer witness league officials holding the ball on kickoffs, a fan favourite in the XFL.

By adopting the USFL-style kickoff, the UFL aims to inject excitement back into the game while staying true to the kickoff style casual fans are accustomed to seeing in the NFL. This decision not only aligns the UFL with the expected football traditions but also accentuates its forward-thinking approach, which balances tradition with innovation.

 

Field Goals

The UFL will keep things simple when it comes to Field Goals. They're worth 3 points as usual and adhere to standard rules. But there is an interesting twist. Possession after a missed field goal is determined by the spot of the kick: if it's within the receivers' 25-yard line, they gain possession at the 25-yard line; however, if the kick is beyond the 25-yard line, possession is granted at the spot where the kick occurred.

 

Punting

The UFL has some... interesting punting rules. Touchbacks will come out to the 25-yard line just like in the NFL. However, in the UFL, if a punt goes out of bounds inside the 25-yard line, the ball comes back out to the 25-yard line. This hurts the Punter position as a whole and eliminates one of the most exhilarating plays for Punters: the Coffin Corner Punt. For comparison, during the 2023 XFL season, only 19 punts landed inside the 10-yard line, while the USFL, allowing the coffin corner punt, saw 34 punts in the same range. This out-of-bounds rule will make it artificially harder for Punters and it actually eliminates excitement on special teams.


It should also be mentioned that Punt Returners will still be able to call for a Fair Catch when fielding a punt, a rule that, while aimed at safety, actually detracts from the excitement of returns. An alternative approach, such as the CFL's "Halo Rule", where no fair catches are allowed but Returners are protected by a 5-yard halo, would be the safer option with regard to player safety and would ensure that nearly every punt is returned, therefore creating more opportunities for exciting plays.

 

PATs

The UFL's decision to remove the option to kick the 1-point PAT has been met with some pushback from fans as it is thought to negatively affect Kickers and Long Snappers who are now provided with even fewer opportunities to showcase their skills. The league will follow the XFL's point-after system, where after a touchdown, a team can try for;

  • 1 point from the opponent’s 2-yard line

  • 2 points from the opponent’s 5-yard line

  • 3 points from the opponent’s 10-yard line


While some argue that removing Kickers from the PAT process adds excitement, it's crucial to acknowledge that allowing Kickers to attempt PATs provides valuable opportunities for them to showcase consistency and refine a skill they will use so often in the NFL. This change will significantly impact the number of attempts Kickers make in a season. When comparing the total number of kicking attempts by Brandon Aubrey in the USFL, where PATs were kicked, and Taylor Russolino in the XFL, where PATs were not kicked, a stark contrast can be seen concerning their respective opportunities. Aubrey attempted nearly 45 more kicks than Russolino during the 10-week season, and this rule change will undoubtedly impact player development. The supposed excitement added to the game by removing Kickers from the PAT process will not be enough to justify the loss of skill development for Kickers and Long Snappers.

 

Misc. Rules

In addition to the various changes listed above, the UFL's rule book includes several other notable rules regarding special teams' play. Among these rules are penalties for delaying the start of a half, which will incur a loss of 15 yards from the spot of the kickoff, ensuring that the UFL kickoffs will stay on time. Kickers and Punters will be assigned jersey numbers ranging from 0-49 and 90-99, potentially reintroducing the iconic #0 jersey for specialists like Marquette King and Brad Wing. Finally, the UFL will enforce the following rules concerning personal fouls on special teams;

  • Running into the Kicker occurs if a defensive player makes contact with the kicking leg or foot, even if the Kicker is airborne, or slides underneath the Kicker, preventing them from returning both feet to the ground. This violation incurs a loss of five yards from the previous spot.

  • Roughing the Kicker occurs if a defensive player contacts the plant leg of the Kicker while his kicking leg is still in the air or makes contact when both of the Kicker’s feet are on the ground. This infraction results in a loss of 15 yards from the previous spot and an automatic first down.

  • Roughing the holder occurs if a defensive player forcibly contacts the holder during a placekick. This infraction results in a loss of 15 yards from the previous spot and an automatic first down.

 

Final Thoughts

Overall, the UFL's special teams rules offer a mix of tradition and innovation, with most rule changes aimed at increasing excitement on the field. While some fans may be disappointed to no longer see coffin corner punts, the adoption of the USFL-style kickoff and the XFL-style PATs should make the game more enjoyable for casual fans. As we await the start of the UFL's inaugural season, one thing is certain; the field flipper's handbook will serve as essential reading for fans and players alike as we kickoff into this exciting new era of Spring Football.

 

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