What Is Expected From Special Teams?
As in fewer position starting players on the kicking teams units. "We need to have more core special teams players," Alabama Coach Nick Saban said, "so that we don't have to use as many starters on special teams. We used a lot of starters on special teams last year. I think that wears people down, and that affects your ability to finish games. The more people that we can use in different roles, I think it gives them something to look forward to, as well as it helps preserve some of our starters' ability to finish games."
Key backups like Marquis Johnson and long-time special teams ace Chris Rogers should factor in big, as should guys like redshirt freshman Charlie Higgenbotham. True freshmen such as Gadsden's Jerrell Harris, along with defensive backs Robby Green and Alonzo Lawrence, could make an impact here. Current starting safeties Rashad Johnson and Justin Woodall both made their marks on special teams, but may be among those that Saban would like to rest, if possible, when the kicking units trot out.
"You have to have role players on special teams, to have good special teams," Saban said. "I think we have good return people. I think our kicker is good. We may need to make some improvements in some other areas," he added, without specifically mentioning the punting game. Though no one challenged returning starter P.J. Fitzgerald in the spring, he averaged 38.1 yards per kick in 2007 with a net of 33.5, due to his coverage unit yielding but 6.6 per returned. Fitzgerald had 20 punts downed inside the 20, and induced 13 fair catches last year.
Fitzgerald appeared to have improved his leg strength and/or his technique in the spring, as he averaged over 43 yards per kick in Bama's three scrimmages. His backup is walk-on Heath Thomas, a junior from Montgomery. Many thought true freshman Corey Smith would come from West Virginia to Tuscaloosa and seize the punting job, but every appearance Smith made this spring scrimmage-wise was as a place-kicker.
That job belongs to junior Leigh Tiffin, who has improved each year he's been at The Capstone, and last year nailed 25 of his 34 field goal attempts, while connecting on all 36 PAT's he tried. His holder will once again be Fitzgerald.
Tiffin exited spring as the Tide's kickoff man, a job he handled most of last season, though walk-on Andrew Friedman has shown he can handle that job should Saban and Williams decide to save Tiffin for place-kicking duties only. Friedman, a junior from Fairhope, has seen limited game action.
Though he has earned a job as a starting cornerback at Bama, junior Javier Arenas is not going to be relinquishing his kick-off and punt return duties. He is perhaps the most dangerous man in the SEC with the football in his hands. Perhaps the most electric moment of the 2007 season came when Arenas returned an LSU punt 61 yards to paydirt to give his team a fourth-quarter lead against the eventual national champions. Bama did not "finish" that game as Saban would have liked, but went toe-to-toe with the Bayou Bengals largely due to Arenas' return, and his career-high 237 all-purpose yards that night. Arenas set his team up on the doorstep in Nashville when he fielded a rugby-style punt and returned it 69 yards to put Bama in a first-and-goal situation from which the Commodores never recovered.
Arenas returned 21 punts for a 15.4 yard average. He was just as dangerous on kick-offs, where he averaged 24.3 yards on 27 opportunities.
Who will join Arenas deep on kick-offs? Last year, the season ended with Jonathan Lowe in that role, and he exited spring there. Lowe is also the back-up to Arenas on punt returns. And Lowe, who returned 14 kick-offs for a 19.8 yard average, may well be deep with Arenas August 30 when Alabama opens the season against Clemson in Atlanta.
Lowe is almost certainly going to be pushed hard for that job by a few members of the Tide's top-ranked recruiting class, men like Burton Scott, whose speed and cutting ability made some compare him to Tide legend David Palmer when carrying the ball in the open field.
Redshirt Freshman Marquis Maze was a dangerous kick returner at Tarrant High School, and he, too, could be a factor on both punt and kick returns. Maze and/or Scott could make things more difficult for Tide opponents who wisely choose to kick away from Arenas, as was the case much of the latter part of the 2007 season.
The sign of a good long-snapper is when no one knows who he is because his name and number are never called. That's been true for Brian Selman. He is a senior, and his backup is redshirt freshman Paul Silvey. Selman played his high school ball at Vestavia for Buddy Anderson, while Silvey prepped at Prattville under Bill Clark. Both those coaches put a huge emphasis on special teams.
The 2008 edition of Alabama special teams probably won't look much different to the naked eye of the average fan, but if the plans of Saban and new Special Teams Coordinator Bobby Williams come to fruition, said fans will likely be a bit happier regarding the units' already good results of 2007.
This is Part 1 of 4. Coming Thursday: The 2008 Tide offense.
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