Will Tide Special Teams Be Special?

There has never been a football coach who didn't claim to put a lot of emphasis on the kicking game. In some cases that is true. This year it could be particularly important for Alabama.

When Alabama opens the 2007 season against Western Carolina at 6:07 p.m. CDT Saturday, September 1, there is a chance there will be a surprise no matter which team wins the toss.

In recent years except in very unusual circumstances it has been routine for the team that wins the game-opening coin toss to defer its kickoff choice to the second half. That has meant that the team losing the toss ordinarily elects to receive and the team winning the toss gets it choice of which goal to defend in the first half and whether to receive (usual) in the second half.

That may be changing. With the kickoff moved back five yards to the 30-yard line, more coin-toss-winning teams may decide to take the football to begin the game. The logic of deferring was that a team could open up with a kick into or near the goalline, start the opponent on or about the 20 yard line, and with a defensive stop get good field position after a punt.

With the kickoff moved back, the likelihood of a touchback on the kick is less, and returns are expected to be a big part of the game. A good return could mean that a team is within just a first down perhaps of being able to punt the ball deep and establish field position after having received the kickoff.

So if Alabama wins the toss next Saturday, don't be surprised to see the Crimson Tide elect to receive.

Suppose Western Carolina wins the toss and elects to receive? There might be another surprise.

For the second consecutive year, Alabama placekicker Jamie Christensen has come up with an injury (quad) just before the start of the season. He is listed as "day-to-day."

But even before Christensen was injured, sophomore Leigh Tiffin had made a strong move and Alabama Coach Nick Saban said "Leigh Tiffin was our first kicker when Jamie got hurt. It's not that Jamie wasn't doing a good job, but Leigh was doing a very good job.

"The decision isn't final. Jamie will get another opportunity."

Tiffin hit five of seven field goals in last Saturday's scrimmage, including making a 54-yard effort. One of his misses was from 57 yards and was long enough but missed just to the right, Saban said. He also made a 51-yard field goal in Bama's first scrimmage two Saturdays ago.

Alabama's kickers were given a day of rest Thursday, Saban said.

Christensen is best known for his outstanding 2005 season, when he won three games with late field goals...last play kicks against Ole Miss and Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl, and last minute against Tennessee.

Tiffin won the Vanderbilt game last year, although the winning kick (47 yards) came midway through the fourth quarter.

But Leigh is best known for two other things: his miserable day in a gut-wrenching overtime loss to Arkansas and being the son of legendary Alabama placekicker Van Tiffin.

Insofar as Alabama kickoffs, Saban has noted that Alabama is looking at "alternate kicks." If the kicker can't get the ball to the end zone, he may try the high, short pooch kick; or a squib kick, a low bouncer to around the 20-yard line that gives coverage men time to get down; or a directional kick, trying to put the ball near the sidelines for a return to limit the room for the return man.

There is more to special teams than placekicking. Alabama returns punter P.J. Fitzgerald, who needs to improve both his average (38.2 yards per kick last year) and his hang time.

Bama will have a new snapper this year. Players say that both Brian Selman, who is generally considered to be the leader after backing up last year, and newcomer Paul Silvey are both doing well.

Saban has said that a lot of linebacker- and tight end-type players will be used on special teams. And speed is always important in coverage and returns.

As for the actual return men, Alabama has a choice of quite a few who have done well. Almost certain to be one -- probably the lone punt return man and one of two deep men on kickoffs -- will be sophomore safety Javier Arenas.

Last year he averaged 19.1 yards per return on 18 kickoffs. On punt returns he was particularly effective with 31 returns for 286 yards, a 9.2 average. He had two returns for touchdowns -- a 65-yarder on his birthday against Florida International and an 86-yard return against Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl. That effort is both the Alabama bowl record and Independence Bowl record.

Other possibilities for returns include Jonathan Lowe, who had a good A-Day Game; wide receiver D.J. Hall; and freshman wide receiver Marquis Maze.

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