Tommerdahl breaks down Tide kicking game

Having been spoiled by the rock-solid placekicking provided by Neal Thomas the last two seasons, Tide fans are understandably anxious about who will take over in 2002. But don't expect the answer anytime soon. <br><br>"The placekicker is a legit open competition," said Special Teams Coordinator Mark Tommerdahl following practice yesterday. "And we will keep it that way."

So far at least, no one of several competitors for the job has distanced himself from the others. "No decision has been made at this point in spring ball," Tommerdahl continued. "We'll have to wait and see if one is made at the end of spring ball. Right now we do have legit, healthy competition."

Sophomore Michael Ziifle is a legitimate contender for placekicker, kickoff man and punter.

Several athletes are working at placekicker, but Tommerdahl identified three as being ahead of the rest. "You've got Brian Bostick who is kicking steady and Mike Ziifle. Mike McLaughlin is in the hunt for the field goal job with those three. Those are the guys that are really battling it out right now.

"What pleases us is that it is a legit competition. It's not just that these are the three guys we're hoping and praying can make it. They are competing for the job."

Several months back the word was that Ziifle (a former all-star soccer goalie in high school) had the strongest leg, but he suffered from comparison with some others in terms of consistency. But Tommerdahl says that dynamic has changed. "Ziifle has got the bigger leg. And the other guys may have been more steady in the fall. But Mike (Ziifle) has improved. There is no question that he has got the strongest leg. But he has also had a pleasingly consistent spring for us."

Unless new competition is provided by additional athletes in the fall (a possibility), Bama's next placekicker will likely come from the group of McLaughlin, Ziifle and Bostick. But right now only two kickers are displaying a strong enough leg to be legitimately part of the competition for kickoffs.

"We've worked on kickoffs for half of our spring practices," Tommerdahl explained. "Everybody wants to know about Lane Bearden's consistency. We understand that needs to improve. He also has a good enough leg to kick it out. He just doesn't do it as often as everybody wants.

Playing sometimes with the intensity of a linebacker, Lane Bearden's overall athleticism gives him an edge in the competition at punter.

"And then Ziifle is legit in that competition hard. Those two will duke it out. The other guys--when it comes to the kickoff competition--there would be a pretty good line drawn. But those two have the best chance."

Three athletes are in the mix to handle punting duties, including Bearden, Ziifle and newcomer Jeremy Schatz. But Bearden has a clearcut advantage. "Lane needs to improve his consistency--you knew I was going to say that," Tommerdahl stated. "But the thing about Lane that probably doesn't get said enough is that he gives us a very good athlete back there.

"There were times last season when he flat saved our bacon with his athletic ability. We're pleased to have him back. He's an experienced guy. He knows where he needs to improve."

Based on leg strength alone, Ziifle competes effectively. But Bearden's background as a star high school receiver coupled with hard work in the Bama weight room make a difference. "Even though Ziifle has a big leg, on athleticism Lane would have the edge," Tommerdahl said. "And that wouldn't make Mike feel bad to say that. He knows that."

However, with NCAA- and SEC-mandated limitations on squad sizes, Ziifle's triple-threat ability could be key. Tommerdahl explained, "The thing that Ziifle gives you that other guys don't is that he's competing for three different jobs. That gives you a lot of versatility, which is nice. Especially with your traveling roster."

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