Kicking game should improve

Last season special teams for Alabama were very much a mixed bag. For every positive play by one unit, there seemed to be a breakdown by another. Probably more than any other position coach on the staff, Dave Ungerer is thrilled that spring practice has finally arrived.

Unable to adequately evaluate his personnel last year with just fall camp to work with, Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer basically started with the depth chart assembled by the previous staff. When it came to choosing a holder for placekicks, he asked the kickers themselves for advice.

It's not that a coach doesn't want input from other sources (especially including his players), but Ungerer will be the first to point out the problems with that system. All season long he was juggling personnel, trying to find the best mix of players for the Tide kicking game. Now that spring is here, Ungerer will have plenty of time to evaluate the available talent, trying athletes out in different roles. And he's planning to take advantage of every minute.

The Tide special teams were hit hard by graduation, especially at the deep snapper position. Nick Ridings (a four-year starter), Jonathan Brunson and Mitch Grissett all completed their eligibility. Together the three made up Bama's depth chart at long snapper. Even Justin Smiley (the emergency deep snapper for road games) has declared early for the NFL draft. Holder Gabe Giardina and placekicker Kyle Robinson also graduated. Will Fountain, who did a little bit of everything in the kicking game, has also finished his eligibility.

Brian Bostick handled placekicking duties for the Tide last year.

Two true freshmen kickers sat out last year as redshirts, punter Patrick Eades and placekicker Jamie Christensen. Both could contend for playing time this year, though Eades is currently recovering from an injury suffered in a car crash.

Seven athletes are listed as placekickers on the pre-spring roster:

  • Brian Bostick
  • Alex Fox
  • Mike McLaughlin
  • Mike Ziifle
  • Jamie Christensen
  • Ryan Saxby
  • Chris Shoup

Of course Bostick (5-10, 213) handled placekicking duties for the Tide last season. For the year he was 16-of-25 on field goal attempts with a long of 48 yards. Those numbers alone aren't bad, but too often something went wrong and the Tide missed a crucial kick that could have been the difference in several games. Sometimes it was the snapper's fault, other times the holder muffed the attempt, and frankly sometimes Bostick just missed. Whatever the case, Bama badly needs to improve its consistency in that phase of the game. For the season the Tide was 33-of-37 on extra point attempts, which is not good enough.

Reportedly Bostick considered giving up his final season of football to concentrate on academics, but he is listed on the spring roster.

Led by juniors Alex Fox (5-9, 183) and Mike McLaughlin (6-2, 207), several athletes will compete with Bostick for the placekicking job. Fox is a veteran walk-on who has performed consistently in practice. All he wants is an even chance. On the other hand McLaughlin is the only kicker on the squad signed to a scholarship out of high school. Practice observers say that he has talent, but McLaughlin just comes up short in the various practice competitions between kickers. A former Parade All-American in high school, it's easy to suggest that the Tide coaches should just give the job to McLaughlin and see how he does on Saturdays. But it's a rare coach that will start an athlete who doesn't outperform his teammates during practice.

Freelend didn't give up last year and finished with a solid season punting.

Christensen (6-0, 176) worked mainly at kickoffs last season, but he expects to contend for the placekicking job this spring. Ziifle (6-0, 236) of course is a name familiar to Tide fans. During his career at Alabama the Georgia native has done a little of everything, including kickoffs, placekicking and even punts. Juniors in terms of eligibility, Saxby (6-1, 180) and Shoup (5-10, 200) only joined the squad this past January.

Four athletes are listed as punters:

The punting position is pretty solid headed into spring. Senior Bo Freelend (6-4, 257) overcame a roller-coaster start to perform well down the stretch. At one point Coach Ungerer was close to benching Freelend, due to his inconsistency. But the two put in extra hours on the practice field and watching film to correct problems with Freelend's form and timing. By the end of the season, Freelend had turned his year around. Freelend's final stats showed 73 punts for an average of 40.8 yards. His long went for 59 yards.

Backing up Freelend, both Aul (6-2, 214) and Schatz (5-7, 151) are solid. Aul will also work at kickoffs. Patrick Eades (6-2, 176) had hoped to establish himself as the heir apparent in his second year, but he's now having to recover from a serious hip injury suffered in a recent automobile accident on campus. Eades is not expected to take part in spring drills.

Though several members of the squad listed at other positions are expected to try out for the job, only two deep snappers are listed on the pre-spring roster:

  • David Sears
  • Drew Wardlaw

Like most kicking-game hopefuls, Sears (6-4, 241) and Wardlaw (6-2, 230) are walk-ons. Wardlaw only joined the squad this past January. Tight end Will Denniston (6-2, 217) and middle linebacker Matt Collins (6-1, 230) have also talked about trying out for the role, hoping to find a position where they can help the team.

Defensive tackle Dominic Lee (6-2, 302) and incoming freshman tight end Trent Davidson (6-5, 242) both possess the skill. Of course Davidson won't arrive until the fall, but in either case it's unusual for coaches to use a frontline player in the role. The placekickers and punters need to spend as much time as possible with the long snapper during practice, working to get their timing down. Limitations on practice time mean that it's rare for a starter to handle the job.

Brandon Brooks proved that good things do come in small packages.

Last season Kyle Robinson took care of the kickoff role with Bostick as the back-up. Fans should expect numerous athletes to be tried in the role this spring, including at least Ziifle, Bostick, Christensen and Aul. Bama fans are still waiting for that lead-footed kickoff man, capable of booming footballs into the endzone. But for the time being at least they'll probably have to content themselves with placement kickoffs, which have become the norm for Alabama in recent years.

On the positive side of the kicking game ledger, Alabama's punt and kickoff return units appear to be in good shape. By the end of the year Brandon Brooks (5-4, 163) was wowing fans with his ability. He broke some long and was within a half-step of going all the way on several others. His final numbers showed six kickoff returns for an average of 34.3 yards. Brooks returned 11 punts for a total of 86 yards.

Unfortunately, Brooks can be inconsistent fielding the kicks, which is definitely not a habit he'll want to continue. He'll need to work hard to improve in that area.

Besides Brooks, Tyrone Prothro (5-8, 173) is excellent returning either punts or kickoffs. By the end of last season he and Brooks were used together on kickoffs. Matt Caddell (6-0, 171), who sat out last season as a redshirt, was one of the all-time best kickoff return men in the history of Alabama high school football. Caddell will definitely be in the mix this spring as well. Besides those three, Charlie Peprah (5-10, 189), Ramzee Robinson (5-9, 181), Anthony Madison (5-9, 180) and Ray Hudson (5-10, 202) have all worked at one time or another returning kicks in practice.

Given their blazing speed and overall athleticism, it's possible that former Minor League Baseball players Scoop McDowell (6-0, 185) and Damien Jones (6-2, 215) could get a look returning kicks. But more likely the coaches will limit their learning curve and concentrate on getting them re-acclimated to football.

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