Admit it. Given the chance, you’d love to go for it on fourth down. Of course, most of us aren’t in a position to do anything but wait and see what the coach decides.
How would you feel if your high school coach refused to punt?
Ask fans of the Pulaski Academy Bruins in Little Rock, Ark., because their coach, Kevin Kelley, kicks conventional wisdom to the curb. He doesn’t believe in punting.
Kelley’s Bruins go for it on fourth down, even in the most unlikely situations. His playbook has more tricks and gimmicks than a magician. He’s known to forbid players from returning punts, figuring the odds of a fumble outweigh the few yards that can be gained from a return.
Call him crazy, but he has a method to his madness.
After scoring a touchdown, Pulaski invariably attempts an onside kick. In fact, he has 12 varieties of onside kicks in the playbook.
Kelley figures after a kickoff, the receiving team, on average, takes over at its own 33-yard line. If an onside kick fails, the other team has the ball at about its 48-yard line.
Through the years, Pulaski has recovered about a quarter of its onside kicks.
“So you’re giving up 15 yards for a one-in-four chance to get the ball back,” says Kelley. “I’ll take that every time!”
Why doesn’t Pulaski punt?
“The average punt in high school nets you 30 yards, but we convert around half our fourth downs, so it doesn’t make sense to give up the ball,” Kelley says. “Besides, if your offense knows it has four downs instead of three, it totally changes the game. I don’t believe in punting and really can’t ever see doing it again.”
He practices what he preaches.
In the waning minutes of the 2008 title game, with a 35-32 lead, he still went for it four times—each successfully—on the final drive before running out the clock.
“I am a numbers guy, and the numbers show I have a better chance of winning ball games by going for it on fourth down than I do if I punt every time we see fourth down,” Kelley said.
In a game against Cabot, one of the best teams in Arkansas and a school with about five times the student body of Pulaski, Kelley might have outdone himself.
After Pulaski scored on its first drive, the Bruins attempted and recovered an onside kick. Before long, they scored a touchdown.
When Pulaski attempts an onside kick, there’s little element of surprise. Neverthleless, Pulaski tried and recovered another onside kick, leading to a third touchdown.
Do you detect a pattern here?
Kelley ordered another onside kick, which his team recovered, leading to a fourth touchdown. If you’re keeping score, with 8:35 left in the 12-minute first quarter, Cabot trailed Pulaski 29-0 and had yet to run a play from scrimmage.
Cabot finally called timeout before the next onside kick attempt. “Not too often you see timeout called as the receiving team lines up for a first-quarter kickoff,” Kelley said.
Cabot finally recovered an onside kick and got to run an offensive play.
But wait. Kelley wasn’t through. He put 11 players in the box, leaving every receiver uncovered.
Under the pressure of an 11-man rush, probably the first time he’s ever experienced it, the quarterback misfired on the pass. The game was competitive the rest of the way, but the damage was done and Pulaski won 64-34.
Some of Pulaski’s fans refer to their coach as a “mad scientist.” But he doesn’t see it that way. He says his decisions are rooted in cold, rational numbers.
If you ask him to defend his methods, he revs up his laptop and refers to his statistics.
Speaking of percentages, his record speaks for itself.
Last I heard, Kelley had a record of 68 wins, 13 losses, and one tie, with two state championships at Pulaski Academy, a winning percentage of 83 percent.
“Honestly, the more football I see, the more I’m convinced we’re right,” Kelley said.