Alabama Kicking Game Should Be Special

Think Van Tiffin’s 52-yard field goal at the end of the Auburn game in 1985 or Phillip Doyle’s 47-yard field goal on the final play in Knoxville in 1990. Jamie Christensen kicking three game-winning field goals in the final seconds in 2005. Those were the good times for Alabama special teams.

But things have also gone bad for Alabama in the kicking game. While Crimson Tide fans think of big wins primarily in games that resulted in national championships, mistakes in the kicking game led to Auburn followers being allowed to revel in their biggest moments – “Punt Bama Punt” in 1972 that endured even through a nine-year Crimson Tide winning streak, and most recently the return of a field goal try for a game-winning touchdown.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban has said in the past that he wants every offensive possession to end with a kick – preferably an extra point; if not that a field goal; and at worst a punt. (At the end of most games, Tide fans have been able to enjoy that other end to a series, the victory mark of “take a knee.”

Discussion of the kicking game ordinarily centers on the actual kickers, but there is much more to it than that. In the course of most games there will be kickoff and kickoff returns, punts and punt returns, extra points, and field goals. Saban puts much stock in good overall special teams, including the recruiting process that results in much speed on the coverage and return teams.

As the Crimson Tide season approaches, there has been much discussion of the offense and defense, not so much on special teams. In part, that’s because the coverage and return teams are not formulated until fall camp when all players (including most of those who signed last February) are available. Saban has often pointed out that many players get their first opportunities to play on kicking units. Additionally, he would prefer not to have to use starters in those special teams roles.

Alabama followers are certainly aware of the gem that joined the team last year as a scholarshipped punter. JK Scott was successful beyond all expectations. He produced the best season for a punter in Bama history.

As a freshman he was named first team All-America by Sporting News.

He led the nation with his 55 punts averaging 48 yards each and the net gain being 44.7 yards. Those numbers, along with 56.4 per cent of his punts being downed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, were also better than any NFL punter.

There is a bit more question about returning placekicker Adam Griffith because the junior was hampered last season by back spasms. Saban has said on several occasions that Griffith is over his back problem and that he has done well. He has had his moments, including making all four of his field goals – including a Tide record three of over 40 yards in one game – in last year’s season-opening win over West Virginia. His range is over 50 yards on field goals, but the Tide probably would like more distance on his kickoffs. Only 24 of 69 were touchbacks last year.

Bama has Cole Massa back as his third year of snapper on punts and placekicks and he has been perfect in his career.

The Tide lost is primary return man last year with Christion Jones headed to the NFL as a receiver, but cornerback Cyrus Jones has impressed coaches with his work.

Saban said, “Cyrus has done it before and has done a really nice job in the fall. He’s got really good judgment, really good hands, running ability, fast and explosive.

“After that we’re looking at 3-4 guys to be backups. Probably Chris Black is one of those guys that’s done it in the past. But that’s an area that we definitely need to develop some guys. Richard Mullaney is a very sure-handed guy, so we feel good about that part of it.”

Saban also discussed a “core group” of men for coverage teams. He said, “Tony Brown. Bradley Sylve. Minkah Fitzpatrick has turned out to be a really good special teams player. Robert Foster has done a really good job on special teams. Shaun Dion Hamilton has always been a good special teams player. Dillon Lee. Shawn Burgess-Becker is a guy who's done a nice job on special teams so far.

“So we've got kind of a group that's got some experience. Obviously it's important that we get a lot of people involved on special teams so we don't play starters. I think it's good for team morale when you have a lot of different guys with roles. But those are some of the guys I've been impressed with.”

Alabama opens the 2015 season in less than two weeks when the Crimson Tide takes on Wisconsin Sept. 5 at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

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