Ironing out wrinkles in the kicking game

Football can be a funny game. From one week to the next a player can go from goat to hero, which is precisely what happened with Bo Freelend.

Earlier in the season fans were calling for Freelend's job, but Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer stuck with his man, staying after practice to get in extra work. Last Saturday Bo Freelend tied a school record, averaging 52.4 yards per punt.

"As a coach you're always happy to see a player do well," Ungerer said. "As I said last week, Bo was just inches away from being consistent. He did good work the previous week (averaging 45.8 yards against Southern Miss) and followed that up against Ole Miss. We worked hard in practice.

"As a coach you hope some of it sinks in."

Coach Ungerer expects that with Chris James' success, he'll now become a marked man.

If Freelend can continue to kick that well, it will take pressure off Bama's now-struggling offense. "We hope he continues on that path," Ungerer said. "We don't expect him to average 52 yards per kick every week. A 44-yard average with good hang time would be fine."

Nothing's ever perfect, though. While Freelend was kicking the ball a long way Saturday, he sometimes out-kicked the Tide coverage, leading to too much return yardage.

Ungerer commented, "Bo really kicked some boomers. The Ole Miss return man did a good job. Our coverage wasn't necessarily late. It was just not very efficient. That was the first time all season we've had to get that far down the field."

Ungerer certainly wasn't unhappy with Freelend's performance, but this week in practice they stressed hang time as well. "It's important that hang time is consistent with your distance, and that didn't happen every time (Saturday)," Ungerer said. "We're looking for 4.6 to 4.8 seconds (hang time), not 4.0. Hang time has got to go along with distance, but we've also got to do a better job covering punts."

For the second week in a row Chris James has been a force for Alabama on special teams. Against Ole Miss he raced in to block a punt cleanly, then scooped up the football and returned it for a touchdown. How's he handling his new-found celebrity status?

"I guess he's handling it well," Ungerer said with a laugh. "I know he's going to be a marked guy the rest of the year."

Ungerer explained what he meant. "We don't design a block for one particular guy. We design versus a scheme and to get pressure (on the kicker). If it works, then the actual block could come from two or three people. The past few games Chris has been in a good spot to make those plays. The punt block he got against Southern Miss was great effort.

Dave Ungerer is convinced that most of the problems on special teams would have been ironed out with a full off-season practice schedule.

"But his block last week against Ole Miss really took no effort. It looked like one of our punt-block drills in practice."

Ungerer enjoys the chess match of coaching special teams. For every scheme there is a counter-scheme, and it's his job to constantly probe for weaknesses.

"We try to set the block up by applying pressure," he said. "We don't know where, but hopefully there will be a crack in the protection somewhere. We just don't know who it will be. On that last Ole Miss punt Juwan Garth broke free. He was just a step too late to block it. Earlier in the year teams were looking for Lance Taylor, which freed up Chris James. Now they've started to key on Chris, which could free up Juwan."

Before Saturday Kyle Robinson had been doing a good job on kickoffs. But Bama's opening effort against Ole Miss went out of bounds, giving the Rebel offense extra yards they had not earned. Ole Miss scored on that first possession and essentially never looked back.

"It was not Kyle's best day," Ungerer admitted. "That first kickoff going out of bounds really hurt our momentum starting the game. You don't want to start in a negative fashion by cheating your defense out of 15 yards. I was really disappointed in that. We'll look at our schemes and personnel this week in practice. We'll open the job up."

Along with Robinson, Michael Ziifle and Jamie Christensen took reps this week kicking off. But Robinson appeared to hold onto his job.

Kyle Robinson has handled kickoffs for the Tide.

Ungerer was also dismayed to see Bama incur several penalties while returning kicks. "I was very disappointed in the penalties," he said. "We had two penalties on kick returns that killed our field position. Those were discouraging. And being off-sides on a kickoff is inexcusable. We practice that every week."

The good news is that for all the inconsistency, Bama's kicking game is clearly improving. And the even better news is that Ungerer believes things will be significantly better next season with a full year to practice.

"Our schemes are not all in--not at all," he admitted. "The practice time this past spring is what we're missing. There are a lot of coverage drills that you really can't do except in spring ball. During fall two-a-days we were working to get our schemes in."

Along with most of Mike Shula's staff, Ungerer came on board after spring practice--normally a crucial period for repping the kicking game. "You can't get mad about some of the problems," Ungerer said. "We just haven't coached them enough.

"All this year we've been coaching on the run, doing the best we can."

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