Imagine this pitch for a sitcom, if you will.
We’ll call the show “Kickin’ It.” Our lead character is a college-aged guy, likable but skinny, perhaps a bit awkward. Let’s call him the Stork. He ascends to all sorts of high-flying adventures. By the end of the series, he has matured into a strong, confident specialist capable of booming success.
Who knows if any of the TV networks would go for it. But that very plotline is playing out to rave reviews here in Waco, with Aaron Jones starring as the Stork.
If it appears as if Jones, Baylor’s fifth-year senior kicker, is sending his kickoffs sailing into the end zone with greater frequency, it’s more than an optical illusion. Jones has punched 14 of his 17 kickoffs for touchbacks this season, a career-best 82 percent rate and exactly twice as effective as last year, when he tagged 41 percent for touchbacks.
Jones believes his right leg is as strong now as it’s ever been, even during his days playing soccer at Crowley High School.
“I’ve definitely worked a lot this summer on strength,” Jones said. “My kickoff motion is a little unusual. For your field goal motion you kind of open your leg up. You use a lot of groin muscle to kick the ball. Most guys in a kickoff motion use their quad, kind of turn their foot up like a soccer-style kick to kick the ball. I have trouble controlling it that way, so I try to keep it like my field goal motion and keep my accuracy good. That’s worked out.”
Now, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the NCAA changed the rule on kickoffs prior to the 2012 season, moving the ball up from the 30 to the 35-yard line. Kickers all over the country benefited from that little bump. According to data culled from cfbstats.com, kickoffs resulted in touchbacks about 15 percent of the time in 2010 and ’11. Last year, the number of touchbacks skyrocketed to nearly 35 percent.
“You can see it in college and in the NFL, guys are putting it out of the end zone too many times. It takes the returners out of the game, but I’m fine with it, personally,” Jones said, laughing.
Some of Jones’ improvement can be traced to trial and error, to simple know-how. Baylor coach Art Briles said the Bears are blessed to have such an experienced guy teeing off.
“I think it’s a variety of factors,” Briles said. “Of course, five yards closer is better, and the wind has not been a factor the first two games this year. So he’s kicking off in a pretty calm environment both ways. And Aaron is a fifth-year guy who has gotten stronger throughout his career. All those things add up to being able to put the ball in the end zone.”
The trust factor with a veteran is always higher. Briles proved that in fall camp, giving Jones his choice of target areas on the field. Before this year, the coaches maintained more control in kick placement.
“We’ve actually gotten a little more lax with him on placement of the ball,” Briles said. “Last year we asked him to put it in some certain areas, which will sometimes decrease the length of the kickoff. We’ve given him a little more freedom this year in keeping it a little more to the middle of the field, where he can put it five to seven (yards) deep.”
Jones’ preference is to thump it down the middle, and hopefully out of the back of the end zone. He also tries to get under the ball as much as possible, with the goal of producing at least four seconds of hang time.
The higher the kick, the more time the coverage team has to hump it downfield to the returner.
It’s worked out well. The season remains young, but the Bears are giving up an average of only 19.9 yards per kick return, better than last year (22.5) or the 2011 season (21.8).
Kendall Ehrlich, one of BU’s top special teams tacklers, said Jones’ cloud-tickling kicks take the pressure off the coverage team.
“It makes it easy on us, because he kicks it out of the end zone, and they start on the 20 or 25, whatever it is,” Ehrlich said. “So we don’t have to go down there and make a tackle. That’s easy. It’s also good when he gets it right to the end zone, because hopefully we can make a stop inside the 20. Either way works.”
Several players on Baylor’s coverage unit boast 40 times of 4.5 seconds or better. One of the most imposing ball-seeking missiles Baylor launches out there is Jamal Palmer, a second-string defensive end with an all-conference level of ferocity.
“Jamal is just scaring people,” Jones said. “Returners don’t want to bring it out on him.”
“He’s a big body and he can move,” Ehrlich added. “He’ll lay a lick on you.”
It may be more imperative than ever this week that the Bears toss up a cargo net on kick coverage. Louisiana-Monroe features a bullet of a returner in Cortney Davis, whose average of 32.8 yards per return ranks ninth best in the country. Davis took one 89 yards to the house against Grambling.
Whether the kicks sail through the end zone or not, Davis should see more than a few fly his way. With Baylor averaging 69.5 points per game, Jones gets plenty of practice kicking off.
Not that he minds a bit.
“It’s great. I’m tired after the games, but I’d rather be tired than sitting on the bench the whole time,” Jones said. “So I’ll take it.”