Tide Special Teams Include Special Talent

Think “Special Teams” and the first two things that pop to mind are the kickers, punter and placekicker. There is a lot more to special teams than just those specialists, but until a team has its full squad in August there’s not a lot more to talk about except for perhaps the return specialists.

Alabama returns both its punter and its placekicker from last year, but one was an All-America as a freshman – punter JK Scott – and the placekicker – junior Adam Griffith – had something of a struggle, probably because he was playing with a back injury.

Aspects of the Crimson Tide kicking game under Coach Nick Saban have generally been good, including those punters and placekickers. Bama also has a history of good return men and long snappers. In fact, the lone weak spot has often been coverage, particularly on kickoff returns (and, infamously from an Alabama standpoint, on the rare return of a missed field goal kick).

Bobby Williams, who is Bama’s tight ends coach, also has the title of special teams coordinator, and almost certainly gets low marks from a segment of the Alabama fan base primarily because of those shortcomings in coverage. That is an unfair judgment, because the Tide – like most teams – develops the overall kicking game with team teaching, most of the assistant coaches (and Saban) having a hand in the selection of players and schemes.

Like most successful coaches, Saban puts great emphasis on the kicking game. It begins with recruiting, and not just signing kickers. Alabama signs speed, the essential ingredient in coverage and returns, and a number of built-for-coverage types, notably linebackers. Also like most teams, the special teams are made up in great part by players who are back-ups at regular positions, although a handful of starters play regular roles through their careers.

It will be a shock if Scott is not the unanimous preseason All-Southeastern Conference punter, and, in most selections, preseason All-America. He is the leading candidate for the 2015 Ray Guy Award, given to the nation’s best punter. Scott had the best punting performance in Alabama history last year as he led the nation in punting at 48 yards per kick and in net punting, 44.7 yards. He dropped 31 of his 55 punts (56.4 per cent) inside the opponent 20-yard line, also best in the nation.

Incidentally, those numbers were better than any punter in the NFL in 2014.

He had 23 punts of over 50 yards, seven of those over 60 yards, and only 12 of his 55 punts were returned for a total of only 83 yards. He had only five touchbacks and 19 of his punts were fair caught.

So let’s say punting is not a concern for Alabama in 2015.

The only two games in which he was not spectacular were against Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina. Bama did not have a punting situation in those games.

In the spring, Alabama’s No. 2 punter was senior Adam Lamothe, who wasn’t bad in the A-Day Game with six kicks for a 43.8 yard average with a long of 51. Scott averaged 53.8 on his five punts in the A-Day Game.

Scott is also a capable kickoff man. He had 24 last year, eight of them touchbacks.

Griffith started the 2014 season very well with four field goals in four attempts – 47, 41, 27, and 45 yards, which made him the first Alabama player to make three field goals of over 40 yards in one game. For the year he was 12-19 on field goal attempts and 53-54 on extra point kicks.

Griffith, who scored 89 points kicking last year, was 5-6 from 20-29 yards (an extra point is 20 yards), 3-5 on 30-39, 4-7 on 40-49, and missed his only try over 50, a 51-yard effort vs. Ole Miss. His biggest kick was making a 27-yard field goal with three seconds remaining at LSU to send the game to overtime, a game Bama won 20-13.

While Griffith was inconsistent last year – he also missed a 27-yard field goal vs. LSU – Saban seems to have great confidence in him. Although media doesn’t get to watch Bama practices, in this spring’s post-practice reports the coach spoke highly of Griffith’s performance. He started the A-Day Game making a 49-yard field goal. His average on kickoffs was down a bit from his freshman season at 61.4 yards per kick, but 20 of his 69 kickoffs were touchbacks.

The back-up placekicker in the A-Day Game was sophomore Gunnar Raborn.

There’s not much to worry about the guy snapping the ball and punts and placekicks. Cole Mazza is back for his junior season. He has been the snapper the past two years and has a perfect 267-267 record – 95 punts, 130 extra points, and 42 field goals. Senior Alex Harrelson is the listed back-up.

Alabama will have a new punt and kickoff return man this year. Christion Jones handled those chores last year, averaging 8 yards on 19 punt returns and 23 yards on 37 kickoff returns.

Alabama has a large number of potential candidates for the return jobs. Although some coaches prefer not to use a defensive back as a return man since (with the exception of game- and second half-opening kickoffs) he might be a bit winded, cornerback Cyrus Jones was option two last year. He had four punt returns for 82 yards – bolstered by a 70-yard return against Florida Atlantic – and 4 kickoff returns for a 19.2 average.

Tailback Kenyan Drake, wide receiver Deionte Thompson, and cornerback Anthony Averett were used in kickoff returns in the A-Day Game. Bama does not return punts in the spring game.

To say that Alabama has a number of speedy guys who might be used as return men is an understatement. Among the more prominent are cornerbacks Bradley Sylve, Tony Brown, and Marlon Humphrey.

Considering the overall depth situation at running back, that could take Drake out of the picture.

There is much about the kicking game to be solidified in August practices.

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