Onside Kick In Football: Everything You Need To Know

Written By: Chris Haddad
Updated: February 12, 2024

Onside kicks are rare but are one of the most exciting plays in football. While there’s a slight chance you won’t see one in a football game, when you do, it’ll typically be at the end of the game. Why do teams kick onside kicks, and why are they at the end of the game?

An onside kick in football is the last chance effort for the kicking team to get the ball back to the offense. The kicking team will kick the ball just over 10 yards in hopes that one of their players can recover the ball, giving another chance for their offense to score.

In this article, we’re going to show you everything you need to know about onside kicks.

Onside Kick

The onside kick is one of the most exciting plays in football. Although it has a slight chance of recovery – players, coaches, and fans get ramped up for an onside kick opportunity.

When they are typically down by 14 or fewer points, Kicking teams will line up for onside kicks. Teams line up for an onside kick to get the ball back to their offense. There’s an opportunity to score points if the offense has the ball.

The kicking team will line up with six players on one side of the football and four on the other side. When the kicker is ready, he will often send a low-line drive kick toward the right or left side of the field.

The kicking team hopes the ball will bounce in favor of the kicking teams, and the players running down the field can recover.

Due to the fact, the ball is oval-shaped, it will take random bounces, making the play more interesting when the ball is kicked.

Now, let’s go over some rules about the onside kick.

Onside Kick Rules

An onside kick can happen at any point in time. Teams can choose to kick onside at the beginning of the game or in the middle. The reason teams don’t do this is that they sacrifice precious field position by kicking the ball only 10 yards.

When lining up for an onside kick, teams will have six players and four players on the other side. All players must stay onside (behind the ball) before kicking.

Once the ball is kicked, it must travel at least 10 yards before the kicking team can legally recover it.

If it travels 9 yards and is recovered by the kicking team, it is ruled illegal touching and will result in a penalty on the kicking team.

The receiving team may recover the ball when the ball is kicked. This means they can recover it if it goes 5 yards or even 10 yards. There are no limits for recovering an onside kick.

If the ball touches the receiving team at any point after being kicked, the kicking team can recover the football before or after 10 yards.

Kicking teams will often have one chance at recovering this kick. Coaches will elect to kick an onside kick if they are losing and need to get the ball back.

If the clock is almost zero or the team has no timeouts, coaches will often elect to kick an onside kick to get the ball back to their offense.

What Is The Difference Between An Onside Kick & Regular Kickoffs

The difference between an onside kick and a regular kick is in the kick’s distance. Onside kicks often travel 10 yards and give their kicking team a chance to recover the football.

Regular kicks are deeper and force the receiving team to return the football. Regular kicks are great for field position and force the opponent’s offense to drive farther down the field on offense.

The main difference between the two kicks is the field position that the kicking team gives up and the ability to recover the onside kick.

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What Is Considered An Onside Kick?

Any kick that is just over 10 yards is considered an onside kick. Teams may line up for an onside kick, not trying to hide anything.

On the other hand, teams may try what’s called a surprise onside kick.

A surprise onside kick is when the kickoff teams line up with five players on each side of the football. The kicker will act like he’s kicking the ball deep but will be short, hoping to recover it.

The kicking team hopes to keep the kickoff return team sleeping to recover the football.

Can You Return An Onside Kick?

Receiving teams can return any kick from the kicking team. As soon as the ball leaves the kicker’s foot, the receiving team can try to return it.

The kickoff team, however, can not return an onside kick. The minute they recover the football, they are down where they recover it.

They can only score a touchdown if the receiving team possesses the ball first, fumbles, then the kicking team picks it up and tries to run with it.

Keep Learning

If you liked learning about the onside kick, we recommend checking out our Ultimate Football Guide. It has everything you need to increase your football IQ.

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The Fair Catch Rule Explained

Why Do Players Take A Knee On Kickoff?

Fair Catch On a Kickoff Explained

Onside kicks in football are a last desperate attempt for the offense to get the ball back to score or tie the football game.

Kickers will kick a low line drive with hopes the ball will bounce off the receiving team or that they will mishandle the football. Once the ball travels 10 yards, it’s legal for the kicking team to try to recover the onside kick.

An onside kick is an exciting play and a fun moment for fans because teams can score points and change the game’s outcome.

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About the author 

Chris Haddad

Chris Haddad is the founder of vIQtory Sports & high school coach for over 12+ years. He has been featured as an authority on Hudl, Bleacher Report and countless other football-centric platforms. Chris continues to study and provide valuable content for those looking to learn more about the game of football.