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This Oklahoma State genius just ruined onside kicks for at least a year

October 10, 2022

This past Saturday, Texas Tech took a 7-0 lead on Oklahoma after its first drive of the game, then did something cheeky: they attempted an onside kick. By all appearances, it seemed to work:

But look closer—in the bottom left part of your screen, you can just see OSU's DeMarco Jones waving his arm for a fair catch:

The end result of the play, due to Jones' quick thinking, was kick catch interference. The onside kick was nullified, and Oklahoma State took possession.

Now, if you're like, you are likely thinking, "what the hell?" There's no way that can be legal, right? There's no way you can just call a fair catch on an onside kick, because we would all know that by now, and everyone on the receiving team would just constantly be waving their arms on every onside kick, and the institution of the onside kick itself would be rendered totally ineffective.

Well, it turns out that not only is this perfectly legal, but the rules are written in a way that seems to acknowledge the fact that it might happen on an onside kick. Yahoo Sports tracked down the language from the NCAA rule book:

“A fair catch of a free kick is a catch by a Team B player who has made a valid signal during an untouched free kick.” Additionally, the rule book states that “during a free kick, a player of the receiving team in position to receive the ball has the same kick-catch and fair-catch protection whether the ball is kicked directly off the tee or is immediately driven to the ground, strikes the ground once and goes into the air in the manner of the ball kicked directly off the tee.”

Essentially, that second sentence is saying, "yup, we thought about the onside kick, and yes, you can still call a fair catch them."

What Jones did was brilliant, not just for the exploitation of the rule, but how quickly he thought on his feet in a situation where there was no reason to expect an onside kick. Oklahoma State ended up winning by 10, and who knows? Maybe this made a critical difference.

The bigger picture, though, is that now that someone has stymied an onside kick effectively by calling for a fair catch, you can bet that literally every college special teams coach in the country, in every division, is going to be schooling his front line to immediately wave their arms for a fair catch the minute an onside kick happens. Yes, someone could still fumble the ball, but no longer can the kicking team try to recover the ball after ten yards without the receiving team having a chance to catch it first, which is how 95% of successful onside kicks work. This is going to make onside kicks even more impossible, and will certainly do away with the Texas Tech-style sneaking onside kick that depends on the receiving team sleeping on the job.

Which ... is kinda bad. All kudos to Jones for the brainy play, but the effects of this are going to suck, and it's going to last at least a full season, which is the soonest the NCAA could change the rule. And I can absolutely guarantee you it's going to come into play in a prominent game at some point this year.

What about the NFL? Well, they're a little bit smarter, as we see from the fair catch language in the rule book:

A Fair Catch is an unhindered catch of a scrimmage kick that has crossed the line of scrimmage and has not touched the ground, or of a free kick that has not touched the ground, by a player of the receiving team who has given a valid fair-catch signal.

In other words, if you kick the ball straight into the ground on an onside kick, which is typical, the kicking team should be safe from the fair catch workaround in the NFL. (Unless you're allowed to just start waving before the kick even happens, in which case, total chaos.)

In college, though, this is a game-changer. It'll be interesting to see if the rule gets changed immediately once the season ends—you can't just murder the onside kick permanently, right??—but probably even more interesting to see who it screws over in the meantime.