Kicking scrimmage solidifies starters

Recently in responding to a question on starting positions, Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione said "Ain't nothing is set in stone." And of course that is certainly true. Injuries and the other assorted vagaries of college football can always force a change. But following today's special teams scrimmage Neal Thomas' status as first-team placekicker is at least approaching the sandstone stage.

Senior placekicker Neal Thomas remains as reliable as ever.

Thomas remains steady as the proverbial rock, nailing kicks both long and short field-goal attempts. "He's in a zone," said Franchione. And it seems clear that the Tide staff is counting on his reliable leg--especially early on while the players adjust to a new offense.

Behind Thomas, given the fact that true freshman Mike McLaughlin is an almost slam-dunk redshirt, redshirt freshman Michael Ziifle would likely be the main backup.

For the all-important role of kickoff man, Lane Bearden (who also has a headlock on the punting job) is ahead. Coach Franchione said that in charting kicks in practice, Bearden has the leg to put them eight yards deep in the endzone. And of course forcing a touchback is the absolute best kick coverage possible.

Behind Bearden, Thomas would likely be the second choice. He gets better height and is more accurate in placements, but Franchione noted that his kicks are also slightly more likely to be returned than Bearden's.

Nick Ridings continues No. 1 in the deep snapping role, despite still recovering from a broken foot. Franchione again said that they hope Ridings will be full speed by the UCLA game. On paper, walk-on Boone Stutz out of Arlington, Texas would be listed second. Stutz had originally planned to walk on at TCU, but followed the coaching staff to Alabama. "I love that kid," was Franchione's comment.

But while Stutz is listed No. 2, on away games or conference dates when the size of game-day squads is limited, Quick Guard Justin Smiley could have to serve as backup.

Though only 5-4, 157 pounds, true freshman Brandon Brooks had a good morning returning kickoffs in today's kicking scrimmage

As noted, Bearden is a clear starter at punter. He has a big leg and is capable of excellent hang time (a kick coverage team's best friend). But he still can be inconsistent. Behind him, Ziifle would be the backup. A former high school soccer star, Ziifle needs to improve his athleticism and hands, but he can also display a big leg.

The vital kick return jobs are still up in the air. "We've got a lot of competition there," Franchione said. The usual names should be listed, including Freddie Milons, Antonio Carter, Triandos Luke, Roberto McBride and Jason McAddley.

However, McAddley did have one drop and a bobble today that could take him out of the running. ‘J-Mac' is an excellent athlete with superior speed, but on kick returns Franchione places the absolute highest priority on catching the football. "You have to prepare for your opportunities. (Jason) had his opportunities today and didn't take care of it."

A new name that showed up well today was Brandon Brooks. "I think with his size he can sometimes get lost on kickoff returns," Franchione said. Twice the diminutive athlete broke free for good returns upfield.

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