Alabama’s special teams return almost completely intact from last year. Starters Leigh Tiffin (kicker), PJ Fitzgerald (punter/holder), Javier Arenas (returns), and Brian Selman (long snapper) all return, which should give the Tide some stability in a part of the game that typically makes a larger impact on the game than the casual fan realizes.
The big adjustment for this group is that they have new coordinator. Gone is Ron Middleton (Duke) who did a fantastic job, especially with Bama’s return coverage units. Enter Bobby Williams, a veteran of working with Nick Saban and a former college head coach.
With a lot of positions the coordinator makes all of the difference in the world. But with all due respect to Middleton I don’t think special teams is one of those areas. It is my opinion that success in special teams is much more related to the amount of time that a team spends practicing the units than it does with some guru creating a new way of doing things.
Alabama’s special teams are coordinated by Williams, but when the Tide works on its kick and punt units it is common to see every member of the coaching staff working with some part of the group. Nick Saban understands the importance of quality special teams and he allocates the appropriate amount of time to the unit.
There's another factor, too, that makes me optimistic about our special teams despite Middleton's departure: depth. Special team players are usually your best athletes that don't start (or that don't get into the two-deep). Bama has been hurting for depth the last few years, but that is starting to turn around, and as we go forward we can look for an improved talent level all around on special teams.
Every discussion of Alabama’s special teams is likely to begin with Javier Arenas. Give Mike Shula and his staff credit on this one; they found a real diamond in the rough and evaluated him correctly (though they short-changed his defensive back abilities).
Arenas is already over 1,000 career yards in kick off returns, averaging 22.2 yards per. His most prolific success has come in the punt return game, though. He’s returned three punts for touchdowns in his two seasons, and missed a fourth at Vanderbilt by about a yard. Javy broke a punt return of at least 30 yards in no less than seven games last year.
He is a dynamic force that will likely see his opportunities in 2008 far more rare than in 2007. When a team has a return man this good opponents tend to do everything in their power to avoid kicking to him. Over the second half of the 2007 season virtually every Tide opponent ran kicking plays to avoid letting him touch the ball. Everyone except for LSU who paid the price by giving up this masterpiece:
There is a bit of a battle for the #2 spot on punt returns and the guy who will line up alongside Arenas on kickoffs. Last season Jonathan Lowe was the man, and he is back this year; barely. He wasn’t with the team during the fall camp which could hurt him. Of course, he missed fall camp last year also and it didn’t hurt him. There are other options this season, though. Marquis Maze, BJ Scott, Terry Grant, Kareem Jackson, and Alonzo Lawrence have all worked with the return teams and any of them could win the spot.
Lowe was one of the better return men in the league last year, and is an excellent option as a #2 returner, but with guys like Maze, Scott, and Lawrence in the wings, this shapes up as an interesting battle.
After the disaster that was the 2006 Arkansas game for Leigh Tiffin, many Bama fans were ready to give up on the Tide legacy. All he did last season was lead the SEC in kicks made from beyond 40 yards. He still needs to get a little more consistent on kicks between 30 and 40 yards, but otherwise he is building on a fantastic 2007. If you need evidence of that simply look to the fact that he was awarded a scholarship last week.
Behind him is true freshman Corey Smith, who is also on scholarship. Smith is still adjusting to the college game, where he is not allowed to attempt place kicks with the aid of a tee. That’s a big adjustment for almost all kickers when they reach college; though Tiffin did not use a tee in high school to avoid this. Expect a redshirt here.
Tiffin is likely to continue handling kick off duties, a job that became much more difficult last season when the kickoff line was moved back to the 30. He will have competition from Smith and walk-ons Jordan Means and Andrew Friedman, but I expect he will still handle the job.
The punting game has been the cause of a lot of consternation for Bama fans, with most pointing to PJ Fitzgerald’s career average of 38.4. That is not particularly good, and appears to have been a focal point for Fitzgerald this off season. He has been solid in his career at generating solid hang time on his punts, which gives the coverage unit time to get into position. With that in mind Bama had a difference of just 4.6 yards between punting average and net punting average. While that is an excellent number, the total net punting average of 33.5 was among the worst in the conference and simply must improve.
Fitzgerald has done enough in his career to earn a scholarship from Nick Saban, and given what we’ve seen it appears as though he just might be poised to add that 5 yards per kick to his punts that could put the numbers up to where they need to be. Not to be overlooked is the job he has done for the last two seasons as the holder for all of the Tide’s place kicks.
One area where Fitzgerald is solid is on pinning opponents inside the 20, where he ranked among the conference's leaders.
His backup looks to be Heath Thomas, who has a big leg. Everyone who went to fan day saw Thomas booming punts that would have been 45+ during game action. They would have been except for one thing… there was no rush. Thomas is extremely slow in getting his kicks off right now, and a slow punter just can't get onto the field for an SEC game. Smith will also ultimately factor into this conversation, as he was a high school punter as well. Both guys need to quicken their release and work on consistency.
The coverage units will likely feel the impact of the large influx of talent that the Tide has seen in the past two seasons. Coach Saban has talked about using scholarship players along with walk-ons on the kick coverage teams, and this is the way that several of Bama’s young players will see their first game action. There will be some adjustment from Middleton to Williams here, but again, the time devoted to this in practice should be enough that there will not be a drop-off.
The special teams in 2007 were the best that we’ve seen from Bama in several years. With more experience for each of the returning guys to go along with competition at every position from younger guys the unit should be stronger in 2008. I fully expect to see at least one kick blocked by the Tide this season, and if anyone is foolish enough to kick to Arenas, I expect we’ll see returns that will either directly result in points or at the very least put the offense in a position to score easily.
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