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Why Do Players Take A Knee On Kickoff?

Mostly every professional or college game, we see a player catch the football and take a knee in the end zone.

Why do players take a knee in the end zone? Taking a knee in the end zone officially “downs” the football and ends the play. If the returner doesn’t “down” the ball, it’s expected that he will run it out of the end zone.

Need an example? We have the perfect one. Take a look at the videos below!

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Taking a Knee On Kickoff

This week we feature two NCAA teams, South Carolina State and Clemson University. In this clip, Clemson will kick to South Carolina State, and South Carolina State will assume they have just taken a touchback on the kickoff. They are missing a few things for it to be considered a touchback.

The South Carolina State player will receive the ball and flip it back to the referee in the end zone. The player has not crossed the goal line or made any effort to down the ball. We pause the film at the point when the ball hits the ground, and we ask, what’s the call? Is it a touchback or a fumble?

Before you read below – let’s hear your answer in the comment section and see if you get it right!

In this clip, we see a South Carolina St. returner catch the ball in the end zone, and before he takes a knee, he flips the ball to the referee and begins to walk away. He doesn’t realize this is a live ball and not a touchback on the kickoff.

According to the NCAA rule committee, there are two ways for a touchback on the kickoff initiated by the referee.

Touchback On Kickoff

A touchback can happen in a few ways. Let’s start by looking at how a player will “down” the ball by taking a knee.

As the NCAA rulebook states :

When Declared
ARTICLE 1. It is a touchback when:
a. The ball becomes dead out of bounds behind a goal line, except from
an incomplete forward pass, or becomes dead in the possession of a
player on, above or behind his own goal line and the attacking team is
responsible for the ball being there (Rules 7-2-4-c) (A.R. 7-2-4-I, A.R.
8-6-1-I-III).

b. A kick becomes dead by rule behind the defending team’s goal line and
the attacking team is responsible for the ball being there (Exception: Rule
8-4-2-b) (A.R. 6-3-4-III).

Snap After a Touchback
ARTICLE 2. After a touchback is declared, the ball belongs to the defending
team at its own 20-yard line, unless the touchback results from a free kick,
in which case the ball belongs to Team B at its 25-yard line. The ball shall
be put in play on or between the hash marks by a snap (Exception: Extra period
rules). The snap shall be midway between the hash marks, unless
a different position on or between the hash marks is selected by the team
designated to put the ball in play before the ready-for-play signal. After the
ready-for-play signal, the ball may be relocated after a charged team timeout,
unless preceded by a Team A foul or offsetting fouls

As shown in the clip above, because the returner does not officially “down” the football ( take a knee), the referee assumes that he will take the ball out of the end zone.

To officially end the play and take a touchback, he would either need to take a knee or run out of the back of the end zone.

the football handbook

Football Rolling Out Of The End Zone

Taking a knee isn’t the only way to initiate a touchback on the kickoff.

If the ball rolls out of the end zone, it will be called a touchback. Even if the ball:

  • He lands in play then rolls out of the end zone without being touched
  • Rolls and hits the pylon
  • Bounces out of the side of the end zone

All these scenarios are valid if the returner does not touch the ball in play. Once the returner touches the ball in the field of play, the ball is ruled “live” and can’t be ruled a touchback.

If a player tries to catch the football at the 2-yard line, muffs it, then kneels it in the end zone, it would result in a safety.

To clarify – A player can not touch the ball in the field of play (on any yard line) and then expect to “down” the football in the end zone. This will result in safety every single time.

Another scenario we often see is when a player catches the ball in the end zone, decides to take it out, gets to the 1-yard line, and then kneels for a touchback.

Once a player crosses the goal line, the ball is officially in play and will result in safety if they try to kneel it or go out of the back of the end zone.

The same scenario applies if a player catches the football cleanly, takes it out of the end zone, then tries to reverse field (and goes back into the end zone), and either gets tackled or pushed out of the end zone. This is common for skill players who make big plays by making defenders miss laterally.

Example Of Touchback

Now that we’re familiar with the rule let’s look more into the clip.

The South Carolina State returner catches the football in the safe zone (the end zone). All he has to do for it to become a valid touchback is either:

  • Take a Knee
  • Run out of the end zone

He, unfortunately, chooses to throw the ball back toward the referee.

The returner did not successfully “down” the ball, so the ball is still in play and counted as a “lateral.”

As noted in the video, the referee also does a great job of letting the ball drop and continuing play, not automatically calling it a touchback on the kickoff.

Credit to the Clemson Tigers (and the Clemson coaching staff) for running all 110 yards to finish this play. We often see players on kickoff start to jog when they know a touchback will take place.

The Clemson player can get down the field and jump on the ball for a touchdown. Quite possibly the easiest touchdown Clemson will score in their program history.

Learn More

More special teams articles to help you learn:

Onside Kick In Football: Everything You Need To Know

What Is A Punt In American Football

How To Install A Kick Return Team

Assembling An Effective Punt Team

The Fair Catch Rule Explained

Fair Catch On a Kickoff Explained

Now that you’ve learned what a touchback is, we encourage you to learn more from our articles above.

If you have any questions about football, leave a comment in the comment section below.

Brian Cartwright

Saturday 30th of October 2021

Question: Saw this happen last week in the NFL. Kickoff lands in the end zone then bounces backward, crossing the goal line and coming to rest in field of play. No one touched it, but the ref signaled a touchback as soon as the ball hit the ground in the end zone, before it crossed any lines. Is this the right call, or is a ball that rolls out of the end zone a live ball?

Larry Placher

Saturday 4th of January 2020

Why did Buffalo bills not get the touchdown when Texans did not take a knee in the end zone during the wild card game