Punter doesn't shy from contact

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- It's a contact sport, even for a kicker. At least, that's what Alabama punter and kickoff man Lane Bearden found out Saturday.

In the Crimson Tide's 37-36 loss to South Carolina, Bearden wound up a target immediately after each kickoff. The Gamecocks sent either Jonathan Martin (5-foot-10, 210 pounds) or Ted Crawford (5-10, 180) to blindside Bearden (6-2, 212), hoping to distract him on future kickoffs.

South Carolina apparently has not attempted this strategy since Lou Holtz became the Gamecocks' head coach in 1999, except for one instance last year when one player forgot his assignment and went after the kicker. This is Bearden's third year to kick off, and it's the first time an opposing team has tried to hassle him like this all game.

``It's a legal play,'' said Bearden, a junior. ``But I didn't particularly care for it.''

Bearden talks with placekicker Neal Thomas (#48) on the Bama sideline earlier in the season.

On the Crimson Tide's first kickoff, Martin drilled Bearden with a straight-ahead block. Bearden, a wide receiver at Pelham High, blocked Martin back, and the two wound up on the ground tangling, with Bearden pulling Martin's helmet off.

When the two eventually separated and got off the ground, Martin put his helmet back on unbuckled, and Bearden hammered into Martin, knocking his helmet off again.

Neither player drew a penalty on the play, although it became a popular ESPN highlight Saturday night.

``Whenever I looked at them right after the kick, they backed off,'' Bearden said. ``They only hit me if I didn't look. They were just trying to distract me.''

Maybe that's why Bearden's second kickoff only went to the South Carolina 28. More than half of his kickoffs this season have gone into the end zone.

``They were trying to take my attention away from kicking,'' Bearden said. ``I guess it worked. I was waiting for him to hit me and brought my head up too soon. After that, I went with my normal motion.''

Four of his remaining five kickoffs went into the end zone.

``All I had to do after I kicked was look at the guy coming at me,'' Bearden said. ``Then he wouldn't come up and hit me.''

However, that wasn't the only time he had to deal with Crawford, who also is on South Carolina's punt-block team.

Late in the opening quarter, Alabama faced fourth-and-19 at its own 20 and sent Bearden to attempt a punt.

Bearden punts at practice.

He got off his kick just ahead of a flying Crawford, who slammed into Bearden while his leg was in the air. The hit forced Bearden to spin around before falling.

This time, Crawford earned a penalty flag, and Alabama gained 15 yards and an automatic first down.

``If they wanted to come after me,'' Bearden said, ``they did a good job of it.''

Bearden punted only two more times after that, and just like with the kickoffs, he didn't have too much trouble afterward.

He boomed a 45-yarder and a 33-yarder that pinned South Carolina at its own 18.

In four games this season, Bearden has stuck five punts inside the 20.

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