Call him Mr. Cool

At the end of one practice this week, Tide coach Dennis Franchione had the entire team surround kicker Neal Thomas. Then they started screaming. Coaches started blowing whistles. Teammates tried to distract him. <p>It didn't work.

Thomas calmly hit three mid-range field goals. The game situation simulation was over, and Franchione was impressed.

"He's very confident, and he has a great mentality," Franchione said. "He's hitting the ball good. When I play golf, I can tell when I hit the ball good. He's hitting it on the head of the club."

Thomas shrugs off the idea that place-kickers are under any sort of abnormal pressure. "It's just my job," he said. "Like anything in life, you do it so many times, you just get used to it."

Thomas hopes to use his leg a little more this year, after a 2000 campaign in which he had only 13 field goal attempts (he made 9). "We've had a real good camp," Thomas said. "[Snapper] Nick [Ridings]' having an excellent camp. If he's full speed, if [holder Jonathan] Richey's full speed and the line's full speed, we'll be at our best for the UCLA game."

One of the few bright spots for Bama last season, Thomas should again play a vital role in the Tide offense.

Franchione said he has confidence in the senior kicker, who hit all three field goals he attempted from 50 yards out. "Neal erases the offense's mistakes," Franchione said. "The nice thing about Neal is when you get within 50 yards, you have a chance to get points."

Thomas' place as the top kicker wasn't always so secure. A transfer from Hinds (Miss.) Community College last season, he wasn't even on the initial 105-man roster to start fall practice. That was corrected within days and he quickly earned the starting job.

Thomas said his position this year gives him more confidence. "It feels good. We've got a good offense coming in, and we feel good as far as my units are concerned."

During his two-year junior college career at Hinds, Thomas was a perfect 43-for-43 on extra points. Last season at Alabama, he was 27-for-27.

Most of Saturday's kicking scrimmage focused on kickoffs and punting. Since punter Lane Bearden will likely handle kickoff duties, Thomas wasn't as busy as other special teamers. But he said he wants to use the remaining practices to get more reps.

"We just go day after day, repetition after repetition," he said. "We've still got a lot more before UCLA."

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