Speaking to a group of Alabama supporters last week, a question was asked about who would be returning punts this year. The answer was that Bama has a number of players who have the talents to be a good punt return man. The first priority is a man who can catch the football, not fumble it, of course, and, ideally, not let the ball hit the ground and give the opponent extra yards – hidden yards, the coaches call it.
After the ball is secured, the punt return man must then make quick decisions on how to avoid the first line of coverage and get as many yards as possible.
It was added, “Calvin Ridley might be the best man. We know he can catch and we have seen he has good speed and the ability to avoid tacklers.
And then there was a “but."
“But we might not like to see such a valuable player standing out there with his eyes in the sky while defenders are rushing down on him with the possibility of getting a hard hit on him as he’s catching the ball.”
That concern was amplified when Alabama released its depth chart this week. Listed number one at punt return was Calvin Ridley, the potential All-America receiver.
Alabama has had excellent players who have been the punt return men over the years. In fact, look back only to the 2015 national championship season. Cyrus Jones returned 42 punts for 530 yards (12.6 yards per return) and a nation’s best four touchdowns. He also had 33 fair catches.
In the Nick Saban Era, Alabama has had very good punt return men. Javier Arenas did the work for three years (2007-09) and averaged over 15 yards per return, scoring four touchdowns, including one for 86 yards that is fifth longest in Bama history. Marquis Maze did it the next two years(2010-11), averaging over 12 yards yards per return including an 83-yard runback for a touchdown. Christion Jones had the job for three years (2012-14) averaging over 10 yards per return.
Ridley said that he “did a little bit in high school,” and that “I got pretty good at it, catching it and seeing holes.”
Now, he said, “Coach Saban’s been teaching me, so I’m going to be ready for it.”
He admitted that he had some room for improvement. He spent time last year with Cyrus Jones in practice, watching Jones catch the ball. “I wasn’t too good at catching it, and I’d see Cyrus square up on the ball and stuff. And Coach Saban gave me pointers, so I’m pretty confident.”
He said his occasional drops were “because he’s just really quick, a really quick guy. He gets in and out of his breaks and sees it real good.”
Ridley said, “First, I’m trying to catch and make sure I get possession of the ball. Then I’ll make my reads off the blocks.”
The key to catching, he said, “Just stare it the whole time until I get it in my hands.”
As for those defenders thundering down on him?
“I try not to focus on that because if you do you’ll probably drop it,” he said. “Just try to focus on the ball and catch it on the first possession. That’s the most important part for me.”
As for practicing the return part, Ridley said, “I just try to go fast.”
Ridley is likely to get his first action as Alabama’s punt return man Saturday night when the Crimson Tide opens the season against Southern Cal at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. ABC will televise the game, which kicks off at 7 p.m. CDT.