College Sports

Numbers back it up, so why don’t college football coaches go for it more on fourth down?

Kansas coach David Beaty (right) watches data about his team but — like every other college coach — isn’t going to try to convert every fourth down, despite studies that say it works.
Kansas coach David Beaty (right) watches data about his team but — like every other college coach — isn’t going to try to convert every fourth down, despite studies that say it works.

On the day Jeff Cruce told his principal about his grand plans for Berkeley High football, the conversation was met with immediate skepticism. The plan was an unorthodox one, to be sure, and Steven Steele, the principal at Berkeley, wondered if his head coach should reconsider. The Berkeley High football team had finished 8-5 in 2014, advancing to the third round of the state playoffs in South Carolina. Why would Cruce want to mess with success?

Cruce, a 53-year-old football man and a former offensive lineman at Clemson, remained undeterred. For three decades, he had been coaching in and around high school football. And after his fourth season at Berkeley, he was ready to try something drastic.

“I will never punt again,” Cruce says.

Cruce is an inquisitive man by nature, he says, He is “an analytics guy.” He soaked up the book “Moneyball” when it came out. He devours academic research papers that traffic in football questions. He is also a self-proclaimed disciple of Kevin Kelley, the famous Arkansas high school coach who has come to be known by a simple moniker.

“The Coach Who Never Punts.”

Kelley, the head coach at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock since 2003, has won four state titles using his radical brand of football. You’ve probably heard the story: Kelley’s teams never punt — save for the most extreme situations. They always onside kick. And they generally treat football games like one never-ending, hair-ablaze two-minute drill. Kelley’s strategies — and their subsequent success — have made him a cult figure in football circles.

He is a constant media curiosity — commanding recent profiles from HBO’s “Real Sports,” the Washington Post, Sports Illustrated and pretty much every publication that enjoys weird sports stories. He is adored on the Internet. (Twitter is obsessed with many things, but it LOVES coaches who never punt.) And he has become a fascination in the upper echelon of football. Earlier this year, according to the Post, Kelley scored a one-on-one meeting with former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, who now works for the Atlanta Falcons.

But for all the attention, Kelley has remained something of a loner — a one-man revolution against the punting fascists of the football world. That could be changing — albeit by a sample size of one or two adventurous coaches like Cruce.

“I love the philosophy — love it,” says Cruce, who is four games into his Kelley experiment. “I can see the fruits of the labor.”

Years of empirical data and scholarly studies say that Kelley is no quack. The simple math supports his thesis. But still, a system as extreme as Kelley’s has found little traction at the highest levels of college football.

“I know what the percentages say,” says West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, one of the more progressive offensive minds in college football. “But you got to base it on how your team is playing, and the confidence with which they’re playing as well.”

OK, stop. Expand your mind for a moment. Let your curiosity wander. What if a downtrodden college football program decided to follow Kelley’s ideas? What if a team with a woeful defense and a promising offense decided to forget about conventional wisdom? What if a school like say — Kansas — decided it had nothing to lose. What would that look like?

Well, the Internet would certainly love it. That’s a guarantee. But the numbers say it might even be the right call.

“You can’t have fear about doing it,” Cruce says. “You can’t worry about your job. It’s a philosophy. When you do it, you’re either all in or not.”

For the last 120 years, football coaches have more or less abided by the same set of rules when it comes to punting. If it is fourth down, and you are out of field-goal range, you kick the ball back to the other team and wage a war of field position.

The rules are flexible, of course, and over the last 25 years, more coaches have used modern statistics to calculate the risks and rewards of going for it. But relatively speaking, coaches have remained a conservative lot. During the last two seasons, just one Big 12 football program attempted more than 50 fourth-down conversion attempts. That team was Baylor, coached by Art Briles, a former high school coach who actually admits he’s become more prone to punt as his program has become a conference power.

“I’ve probably actually gotten a little bit more conservative,” Briles says.

For years, though, advanced studies have argued for football coaches to be more daring. In an academic study published in 2005, an economics professor from the University of California analyzed NFL teams’ fourth-down decisions. David Romer, the professor, found that teams just didn’t go for it enough. The teams’ decisions were “far more conservative than the ones that would maximize their chances of winning,” Romer wrote. Kelley, the coach at Pulaski, has done his own research and read other studies. He thinks about the decision as a simple math equation.

In Kelley’s system, each yard line of the field is assigned an expected point total for an offense, ranging from 0.5 points to six points, based on years of data. In other words: How often should a team expect points from this spot on the field? From that number, you subtract the opponent’s expected points should they take over on downs at that same spot. Kelley also factors in the probability of a conversion, the expected punt length and the expected punt return. The equation is complicated, but the results are easily digestible.

Consider this extreme example, one Kelley has used often: It’s fourth and seven from your own 5. If Pulaski fails to convert, the opponent has a 92 percent chance to score a touchdown from the 5. If Pulaski punts, the opponent will likely take over around the 40-yard line and still has a 77 percent chance to score. Kelley’s teams, meanwhile, have a 50 percent chance at converting the fourth down. The decision, for him, is obvious.

“Just because that’s the way it has always been done,” Kelley told The Star in 2010, explaining the numbers. “(That) doesn’t mean it’s the best chance to win.”

The percentages change at the college and NFL levels, where punters are stronger and more skilled. But the thrust of the argument remains. If the numbers offer a competitive advantage, why wouldn’t a school with nothing to lose take a chance?

Here is one example: A week ago Saturday, Kansas suffered a 55-23 loss to Memphis at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence. The Jayhawks dropped to 0-2 entering a bye week, on pace to become the first winless team in a power-five conference since Washington in 2008. During the Memphis loss, both teams had 15 possessions. Memphis averaged 3.6 points per possession; Kansas averaged 1.5. In a game in which each team followed the conventions of football, the Jayhawks were doomed. Each Kansas punt meant the equivalent of at least a field goal for Memphis.

Was there another option? In four quarters, Kansas punted seven times — in situations ranging from fourth and 23 at its own 35, to fourth and five from the 30, to fourth and 13 from the Memphis 48. The Jayhawks went for it just once — on fourth and five in the final minute. The conversion attempt failed.

Kansas coach David Beaty is something of a numbers guy. He talks about what the “data” says during news conferences. He has implemented a meticulous system to keep players healthy and fresh. He profiles as something of a risk-taker, but against Memphis, there were few occasions where any conventional coach would have gone for it on fourth down.

KU offensive coordinator Rob Likens, meanwhile, also says he is wired to be naturally aggressive, especially on fourth and short.

“A lot of that is how good you are on the offensive line,” Likens says. “Do you feel like you can push them off the ball for a yard? Field position plays a huge part in your thinking process in that deal. And also how well your defense is playing.

“But once you cross the 50-yard line, man. To me, it’s whatever the head coach says. But I’m ready to go.”

We will learn more about Beaty’s aggressiveness as the year wears on. But it’s safe to say he won’t be instituting Kelley’s system anytime soon. He is not alone. Coaches, experts say, are like most human beings — conditioned to think about the effects of possible failure more than the possible gain. And in this case, the possible failure is about more than turning the ball over on downs.

During the last two seasons, just four Big 12 programs averaged 20 fourth-down conversion attempts per year. The most conservative of the conservative is Kansas State’s Bill Snyder, whose teams went for it 23 times over the last two seasons. The counter-argument: K-State converted 15 of those 23 attempts for an impressive 65 percent success rate. The Wildcats played in a bowl game for a fifth straight season.

“(We) go for it if you can make it, and if you can’t, don’t do it, I guess,” Snyder says, laughing as he explains his philosophy. “I don’t know. Every game is a little bit different.”

Snyder says he likes to factor in opposing defenses and how his team matches up in certain packages or play calls. He is also a believer in the value of field position.

“I’ve normally been reasonably conservative in regards to that,” he says. “I’m not a big fan of going for it when you’re coming off your own end of the field.”

Sometimes, of course, there are no optimal choices. During the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Kansas program was relatively aggressive under Charlie Weis and then interim coach Clint Bowen. In those two seasons, they went for it 48 times, the second-most in the Big 12. They were successful just 11 times.

Still, Kelley and his followers believe a competitive advantage exists, suspended somewhere between the boundaries of bravery and foolishness. It’s up to coaches to tap into it.

Four games into his Kelley experiment, Jeff Cruce has seen mixed results. His football team at Berkeley is just 1-3, but his up-tempo offense is thriving. The Berkeley High Stags are averaging close to 94 plays, an unheard of number in a 48-minute game. They are also piling up close to 500 yards of offense.

“It’s all because we don’t punt,” Cruce says. “You get that extra down. The thought process is that every down is a first down. That’s the way we preach it to our kids.”

Cruce says his defense is struggling, but this was expected — and part of the reason he committed to the no-punts philosophy. If your strength is offense, Cruce reasons, you might as well try to keep the ball in your playmakers’ hands. There has been a learning curve. For now, Berkeley is refraining from onside kicking after touchdowns. Maybe next year, Cruce says.

There is, however, a new energy around the program. His players bought into the system immediately, he says, taking to the aggressive mindset. There is something about that extra down that fosters confidence, he says. In truth, one of the biggest challenges has been convincing his assistant coaches. Some habits die hard.

“It’s like a poker player,” Cruce says. “I have taken all of my chips and I have placed them in the middle of the table. And I’ve told my assistant coaches this: This could be a career-ending decision that I’ve made. But I feel so strongly about it. I know it’s gonna work.”

Cruce is admittedly new to the system, but he also believes it could work at a higher level. Maybe someday, a Division I college program will give it a shot. Maybe someday, a school will take a look at Kelley himself. A few moments later, though, Cruce pauses.

“Call me in six months,” he says. “I’ll let you know what I think then.”

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.