An Early Look: Special Teams

If the offensive line isn't Alabama's chief concern heading into the 2005 season, it is almost certainly the situation at both kicker and punter.

2004 season punter Bo Freelend and placekicker Brian Bostick have graduated, and the battles to replace both men in the spring were filled with results that could be graciously called "mixed." Many fans maligned the work of Freelend and Bostick the last two years – sometimes with good reason – but if Alabama could just get equal results in 2005, it would have to be considered a successful campaign.

It will probably be easier said than done.

Of the two open spots, placekicker appears at first glance to be the more solid. Jamie Christensen, Alabama's kickoff man a year ago, has a great leg and improved a lot at off-the-ground placement kicks from last season. But Christensen was hurt toward the end of spring practice and didn't get a chance to do any live kicking at A-Day.

C.J. Rhody and Ryan Saxby did, however, and both men did some things that justified at least a little optimism in the kicking situation. Rhody has a stellar leg and must only get used to kicking off the ground. He's a redshirt freshman. Saxby, a senior, is accurate inside 40 yards but may lack the leg for the long kicks.

The story was much different at punter. Jeremy Schatz had to spell Freelend in the Music City Bowl last year, with unimpressive results. Schatz is a very small person – about 5'6", 150 pounds – and his leg strength is hurt by that. Throughout his career so far as a reserve, he has the reputation of a good punter in plus territory, but one that has problems when kicking from his own side of the 50-yard line. He looked to average between 35-40 yards a kick for much of spring work. He needs more hang time, but in his favor is the fact that his ball carries an odd spiral, which could make it harder to field.

Jeff Aul was briefly Alabama's kickoff man two years ago, and was Schatz's primary competition for the punting job in the spring. Aul has a much bigger frame (6'2", 208 pounds) and a stronger leg than Schatz, but was not nearly as consistent. Behind those two are a handful of players with interesting reputations. Patrick Eades was a top-flight high school punter at Hoover High School, but is still feeling the effects of a major car accident almost two years ago. Joseph McPhillips looked sharp in some fall practices, but didn't progress as well as hoped this spring.

The jobs could end up going to a pair of players not even currently on campus. Andrew Friedman turned down scholarship offers from smaller schools to walk on at Alabama. He'll compete primarily for the placekicker position, but he can also punt. P.J. Fitzgerald will join the mix at punter.

While the kicking jobs may cause some heartburn, the kick return squads figure to cause heart flutters instead. Tyrone Prothro has quickly become a marked man in the SEC, averaging 16.3 yards per punt return and 26.6 yards per kickoff return in 2004. D.J. Hall, Brandon Brooks, Simeon Castille, Matt Caddell, Keith Brown, Ezekial Knight and any number of incoming true freshmen figure to make up the supporting cast. Kick coverage units were good in 2004, helping Alabama rank 20th in net punting despite averaging less than 41 yards per gross punt.

Summary: Alabama figures to both win and lose games in special teams in 2005. The kick return and kick coverage units are good enough to turn some games in Alabama's favor, but the placekicking and punting teams may drop one on their own. With Christensen slowed at the end of the spring, a combination of C.J. Rhody on long kicks and Ryan Saxby on short kicks looked as if it would work well enough for SEC ball. But the punting simply wasn't up to snuff, and unless one of the punters already on campus has some kind of punting epiphany during fall drills, expect one of the two freshmen walk-ons to take the job out of the gate.

2004 Players: P Bo Freelend (62 punts, 40.6 avg.), P Jeremy Schatz (3 punts, 31.7 avg.), PK Brian Bostick (16-of-19 field goals, 84.2%, 35-of-35 PATs, 100.0%), PK Jamie Christensen (no stats), PR/KR Tyrone Prothro (6 PR, 98 yards, 16.3 avg., 0 TD; 17 KR, 452 yards, 26.6 avg., 1 TD), PR/KR Brandon Brooks (25 PR, 128 yards, 5.1 avg., 0 TD; 10 KR, 244 yards, 24.4 avg., 0 TD), KR Matt Caddell (1 KR, 10 yards, 10.0 avg., 0 TD)

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