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In the Nick Saban Era, Alabama has big advantage over opponents in punt return yardage

Alabama’s Nick Saban discusses punt return philosophy and also lauds JK Scott

Most of the talk this week insofar as Alabama’s kicking game has revolved around the inexplicable decision of the Augusta (Ga.) Sports Council to omit the nation’s second-leading punter, Alabama’s JK Scott, from the list of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter.

Another aspect of the punting game under Alabama Coach Nick Saban has been the Crimson Tide’s extraordinary advantage in punt return yardage. That’s not just this year. That’s every year.

Bama has had very fine punt return men in the Saban era – Javier Arenas, Marquis Maze, Christion Jones, Cyrus Jones, and until he suffered a season-ending injury this year Eddie Jackson.  The result has been that Bama has had a substantial advantage both in the number of punts returned and the number of yards gained on returns through the 10 years Saban has been at the helm.

In addition to Jackson, who had 11 punt returns for 253 yards and two touchdowns before being injured in Alabama’s eighth game of the year against Texas A&M, the Tide has used Xavian Marks who has 5 returns for 105 yards and one touchdown and freshman Trevon Diggs 4-17.

For the year, Alabama’s punt return men have 23 returns for 379 yards and Tide opponents have 12 runbacks for 119 yards.

That’s about par for the Saban Era. In Saban’s 10th year at Bama, Tide punt returns have amounted to 340 runbacks for 4,474 yards – an average of 34 for 447.4 yards per season – compared to opponents with 10-year totals of 168 returns for 1,307 – an average of 16.8 runbacks for 130.7 per season.

It’s not being particularly daring, Saban said.

“I certainly want our guys to use good judgment and understand that the most important thing is the possession of the ball, and they should not try to catch the ball in traffic and take chances with the ball,” he said. “But it’s judgment. A guy is looking at a ball that’s hanging in the air for four, four-and-a-half seconds. There’re guys running down the field and he’s got to make a judgment as to when the ball is going to get here, when they’re going to get here.”

He said that one reason it may appear that punt return men are taking more chances is because of the type punts.

He said, "I think that it may seem that way because of so much of what I call rugby punt, the spread punt formation which looks like kickoff coverage, which probably makes it a little more difficult to hold people up. A lot of the punters don't punt hang time-type punts. They punt line drive punts that hit the ground and roll.

“In a lot of cases we're out there teaching a guy not only to field the ball when it's in the air but also how to play the ball on the ground.

“I think it's a combination of the punt changed and I think the punters have changed a bit. So I think the whole philosophy of that part of the game is a little bit different than it used to be.”

Saban said the longtime standard of how deep to field a punt is still in place. That calls for the punt return man to put his feet on the 10 when there is a chance of a punt that will reach the end zone. If the punt goes over his head, he lets it go.

"We still have our guys play the ten,” Saban said. “If you catch the ball at the nine, it happens. You're on the ten and you back up a step because you misjudge the ball a little bit and you're already committed to catching it.

“But if one of our guys catches the ball way deep down in there, that's not really what we want him to do."

It is reasonable to expect Alabama’s punt return man – presumably Trevon Diggs – to have a number of opportunities Saturday when the Crimson Tide hosts Chattanooga at 6 p.m. CST in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama is 10-0 and ranked first in the nation. The Moccasins are 8-2 in FCS competition. ESPN2 will televise the game.

The subject of the punt return led to Saban’s feelings about Tide punter JK Scott being left off the list of semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award.

He said, "I'm not here to criticize anybody or anything like that. Everybody has to make their choices based on whatever their criteria is.

“In my opinion, JK is maybe the best punter in the country in terms of what he does for our team. His average, his consistency this year, his hang time. Our coverage unit has been better in that regard and I think we're in the top one, two or three in punt, net punt, and all that in our conference, which speaks highly for the job that he's done. He's got good operation time.

“So that's my opinion. It's not a criticism of anybody else or saying what anybody else should have done. I have respect for all these people who make these decisions.

“But in my opinion I think he's one of the best punters in the country and certainly one of the most valuable guys on our team."

Here is how Alabama has fared in punt returns in the Saban Era:

2007 – Alabama 27-370, Opponents 21-138

2008 – Alabama 49-701, Opponents 27-242

2009 – Alabama 39-587, Opponents 17-156

2010 – Alabama 28-349, Opponents 10-64

2011 – Alabama 39-507, Opponents 11-51

2012 – Alabama 34-337, Opponents 18-117

2013 – Alabama 29-413, Opponents 13-58

2014 – Alabama 25-234, Opponents 12-83

2015 – Alabama 47-597, Opponents 27-279

2016 (to date) – Alabama 23-379, Opponents 12-119

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