Alabama Coach Nick Saban has frequently said he is satisfied if every offensive possession ends with a kick – extra point, field goal, or punt. The best would be in that order (forgetting, as if we could, the last play of 2013 at Auburn).
In our series examining the best players at every position in the nine years of the Nick Saban Era at Alabama, we look at both placekickers and kickoff return men.
Although there sometimes have been disappointments in the placekicking game and kickoff return game, generally speaking these have been very solid for Bama in the Saban Era.
Saban’s first placekicker was a holdover from Mike Shula’s last Alabama team, and Leigh Tiffin had a very good three years under Saban. One has to forget that Tiffin’s meltdown as a freshman in an overtime loss at Arkansas did not come under Saban.
In 2007, Tiffin was 25-34 on field goals with a long of 51. In 2008 he hit 20-29 with his longest 54 yards. And as a senior kicking for the national champions, he made 30-35 with a long of 50. For his career under Saban he was 75-98, and he was 8-13 in his freshman year with a long of 47. He is first (30) and second (25) in the Alabama record book for field goals in a season and first in career field goals (83). He is third in longest field goals to his father, Van, who had a 57-yarder, and Ryan Pflugner and Adam Griffith (both 55) with his 54-yarder.
Jeremy Shelley followed Tiffin and was also proficient, though he was primarily the “short” field goal kicker. In 2010 he made 12-16 field goals with his long one 42 yards. He was the kicker on two national championship teams. In 2011 he was 21-27 with a long of 44 and in 2012 was a perfect 11-11, his longest only 30 yards. He’s the Bama record-holder for extra points in a season, making 69-69 in 2012, and in a career (172-175).
Cade Foster was the “long” field goal kicker in Shelley’s three years. He hit 7-9, the longest 49 yards, in 2010. In 2011 he was called on 9 times and made 2, with a long of 46; and in 2012 was good on 4-9 with a long of 52. He was the kicker on all field goals in 2013 and made 12-17 with a long of 53. In his role as a backup he made 17-27, all but two (both made) over 40 yards. For his career he was 25-44, including 9-11 under 40 yards. He was also good on 60-60 PATs in 2013, second best in Tide history.
Adam Griffith, who will be playing his final season for Bama, has been the Tide’s field goal kicker the past two years. He was the back-up in 2013 and his most memorable field goal try in a 1-3 season was his unfortunate (and not his fault) long try on the final play of the game at Auburn, which was returned for a touchdown that defeated Alabama. In his two years as the starter, he was 12-10 with a long of 47 in 2014 and 23-32 (after missing his first four) with a long of 55 in last year’s national championship season. In his return to Auburn, he was 5-5 on field goals. Griffith also gets credit for excellent kickoff work, not the least of which was his legendary onside kick that led to a touchdown in the 45-40 win over Clemson for last season’s national championship.
Tiffin, Shelley, and Griffith all had games of five field goals, second all-time to Philip Doyle’s six.
Even without giving credit to Tiffin for his father’s 57-yard field goal on the last play of the game to beat Auburn in 1985, we are going with Tiffin as best of the Saban Era, but it’s a close call over Shelley and Griffith, with Foster handicapped by most of his tries being from long distance.
Alabama also has had excellent kickoff return men under Saban.
Although there are two men back on returns, in almost every year there has been one standout.
Javier Arenas was that main man in Saban’s first three seasons. In 2007 he had 27 returns for 657 yards, a 24.3 average with a long of 62; in 2008 he was 26 for 614 yards, a 23.6 average, with a long of 41; and in the 2009 national championship season he was 19 for 551 yards, 29.0 average, with a long of 61.
Trent Richardson did most of the work in 2010 with 24 returns for 634 yards, a 26.4 average, including a 91-yard TD runback. He added a few in 2011, returning 3 for 66 yards, a 24.0 average.
Marquis Maze had 8 returns for 189 yards, a 23.6 average in 2010, and in 2011 had 12 runbacks for 342 yards, a 28.5 average, with a long of 70.
Cyrus Jones had 10 returns in 2012 for 250 yards, 25.0 average, with a long of 41; in 2013 he had 22 returns for 631 yards, including a 94-yard touchdown return, for a 28.7 average; and in 2014 he returned 4 for 77 yards, a 19.0 average with a long of 20.
Christion Jones split duties with Cyrus Jones in 2012 and 2014. In 2012 he had 8 returns for 213 yards, including a 99-yard touchdown, for a26.6 average. In 2014 he had 37 returns for 851 yards, a 23.0 average with a long of 38.
Kenyan Drake was the primary return man last year with 19 for 505 yards, a 26.6 average, and will long be remembered for his final return, a 95-yard touchdown beauty in the Tide’s national championship game victory over Clemson.
There are no bad choices and it’s a close call with the edge to Cyrus Jones over Javier Arenas and a bow to Kenyan Drake for the most meaningful kickoff return of the Saban Era.
Our series will conclude with a look at punters and punt return men.