Patience pays off for punt returner

Alabama used its off week to make a few changes in personnel, most notably inserting Brandon Brooks into the lineup to return punts. <br><br>It's been three years since the redshirt sophomore handled the job, but it all came back to him quickly.

"Once I touched the ball, my instincts took over," Brooks said. "It was like I had been out there all year."

"Brandon did a good job returning punts," Tide Head Coach Mike Shula said afterwards. "He's been patiently waiting his turn. He's had real good practices the last couple of weeks, and we wanted to give him a shot.

"He's got the speed and quickness to give us a spark."

Brooks didn't waste any time making his presence known. Settling under a high kick at the Tide 15 yardline, he first secured the ball and then made the Mississippi State gunner miss en route to a solid 18-yard return.

As he waited for the ball to arrive, Brooks admitted to some nerves. "I had some butterflies, but I tried to make it seem like it was practice," he said. "I was focused on catching the ball. I knew if I caught that first one, it would be a big weight off my shoulders. I could relax the rest of the game. That's what happened."

Brandon Brooks settles under a high punt at practice.

Brooks had three more returns during the game, finishing up with 56 yards.

"I was probably happier for Brandon than anybody else on the team," Shula said. "He's been patiently and quietly waiting his turn. Earlier we just felt comfortable with Shaud Williams (in the role). Brandon has worked really hard and improved at practice. He earned the right to return kicks."

At only 5-4, 163 pounds, Brooks is really too short to be an every-down pass receiver in the SEC. But he seems ideally suited to return punts. Why did it take so long to put him in there?

"Coach Shula and I talked about that," Brooks said. "For a time he just didn't feel comfortable with my catching the ball. I thought I was always ready, but that was just my competitive nature as a football player. The head coach knows what's best.

"He thinks I'm ready now, and I tried to take advantage of my opportunities."

Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer made the decision to try Brooks in the game. Ungerer explained, "As far as punt returns are concerned, Brandon has got the skills you want, no doubt. It was something that we had been looking at all year long in practice. There is a trust level and confidence that all go into the decision to put a guy back there returning punts. During the off week we made a concerted effort to make sure that Brandon was back there in key situations and got plenty of repetitions. We felt like it was time to give him an opportunity.

"He made the most of it."

For the first part of the season tailback Shaud Williams had been principally responsible for returning punts. Averaging seven yards per effort, he's been solid. And Williams excels at protecting the football.

Brooks has waited patiently for his chance to return kicks.

"If you put Shaud back there, you're going to get a guy with great hands who's going to make good decisions," Ungerer said. "He'll be solid for you. You're looking for somebody like Shaud, but he's also carrying the ball from the line of scrimmage 25 times or more per game."

With Brooks fielding punts, the SEC's leading rusher will now have that much more time to rest up between offensive series.

"Brandon gives us a fresh guy with fresh legs and a different body type back there," Ungerer said. "There are a lot of advantages to the move. I'm real happy for Brandon and for the team that he played so well. We want to continue to make that a positive thing for us."

The shortest player on the squad, Brooks also could well be the fastest. Jitterbug quickness combined with blistering speed make for a dangerous return man.

"This summer I was clocked at a 4.31 (in the 40-yard dash)," Brooks said. "That's the fastest I've been timed. It's not just speed though, it's ‘quicks.' I try to be fast and quick. You've got a lot of football players that can run straight ahead. I pride myself on being able to go lateral, also."

His second chance saw Brooks field a punt on Alabama's 29-yardline. After running around and by numerous Bulldog players, Brooks had advanced the ball 20 yards to midfield, setting the Tide up for a field-goal drive.

"You've got to have lateral movement on punt returns," Brooks said. "It's all about making the first guy miss. Never let one guy bring you down. Always make the first guy miss. That gets you started."

Brooks is dangerous straight up the field, using his quickness to elude would-be tacklers. But he used his speed on one return to beat State's coverage to the sideline. "They made the mistake of letting me outside," Brooks recalled. "When I caught the ball I saw (the outside) was wide open, so I took it. I tried to hit the sideline as fast as I could. I got some good blocks on that run, too. I tried to use my speed."

For the game Brooks averaged 14 yards per return. Obviously he doesn't yet have enough returns to be ranked, but that number would be good enough for 11th in the nation.

Two of his four returns went for 15+ yards. But Brooks' third opportunity--only a two yard effort officially--may have been his smartest play. A relatively short punt had hit the ground in front of him and appeared headed for a long roll. But he stepped in front of the football, fielding it perfectly on the bounce.

Before last week, Tide fans had only seen Brooks' speed and quickness at practice or during A-Day games (where this photo was taken).

"It was a short punt," Brooks related. "The punter didn't hit it well, and I didn't think I could (safely) run up and catch it. But after it hit, I caught it to stop the ball from rolling even further. I was working on field position. I didn't try to do too much. Just secure the ball and protect our field position."

Of course when it comes to returning punts, sideline-to-sideline runs are nice, but protecting the football is paramount. Brooks commented, "That was my focus. Returning punts you have to make the first guy miss, but before that you've got to catch the ball."

Some fans will wonder why it took so long to put Brooks back deep fielding punts, but he's not going to worry about it. His focus will be on the task ahead.

"It took me awhile to get out there, but I plan to keep the job," Brooks said. "It was a long wait, so I've got to hold onto it."

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