Fitzgerald Says His Punting Has Improved

Alabama junior P.J. Fitzgerald wants to do his job as well as he can. That means in a game not having a long return of one of his punts. But sometimes in practice his job is to give the punt return man an opportunity. That means he has experience with the Crimson Tide's return specialist and advice for those who must punt to him.

Alabama's punt return man is Javier Arenas, one of the best around. P.J. Fitzgerald has a recommendation for opposing punters wanting to avoid long Arenas runbacks.

"Kick it out of bounds," Fitzgerald said.

At first blush, a punter's job seems straightforward enough. Kick it long and kick it high. That's a good start. If the offense doesn't have a chance at a score, coaches want to be able to change field position. That's the job of the punting team, and particularly the punter.

Fitzgerald, who has been the Crimson Tide punter the past two years, is an upcoming junior from Coral Springs, Fla. He has had good days and bad days in those first two seasons.

This year, he said, the team goal is for him to average 42 yards per punt and for net gain to be 38 yards. "I'd like to meet or exceed that," he said. Last year Fitzgerald averaged 38.7 yards on 64 punts and net punting (punting distance less return) was 36.5.

There are other considerations. The punter needs to know if the opposing team is trying to block the punt, which puts a premium on quickness. He needs to know the return characteristics of the opponent, and put the ball where his coverage team can make the play. He doesn't want to give up 20 yards with a punt that goes into the end zone for a touchback.

It's conceivable that Fitzgerald, a high school quarterback, might also be called upon to do something other than punt.

Fitzgerald said he is aiming for consistency this season. To that end, he thinks off-season work leading up to fall camp was good.

"The off-season was the best we've had since I've been here, for me personally and for the team," he said. "We got a whole lot better."

Fitzgerald said he worked on technique and that he is "hitting it pretty solid. My first two years I was over-striding, trying to over-power the ball. I've learned that if the form is good, the leg will take care of the power."

One tool he has used is kicking a soccer ball. "It's lighter and so your leg doesn't bounce back and you get the feel of kicking through the ball," he explained.

He also said there had been "a lot of mental conditioning."

Special teams are under a new coach this year, Bobby Williams having replaced Ron Middleton. "It's not much different," Fitzgerald said. "He's more stern in his approach. He is a former head coach."

Fitzgerald handles various punting duties in practice. Sometimes he's punting "returnable balls" to Arenas and friends as the team works on coverage. Sometimes he's working against a scout team rush that's attempting to block the punt. All possible game situations are rehearsed.

Fitzgerald has another duty. He's the holder on field goal and extra point attempts for Leigh Tiffin. Earlier this year Tiffin gave Fitzgerald credit for being a help to Tiffin as the kickers work together during practice.

Fitzgerald said that Tiffin has improved, particularly on kickoffs.

Asked about the pressure of handling the center snap and getting the ball down for a field goal or extra point kick, Fitzgerald said he never thinks about it. "We've practiced it thousands of times," he said. Last year Fitzgerald seemed to get better as the season went along. He had his best game against Mississippi State when he punted four times for 179 yards (44.8 average) with a long of 56 and two punts downed inside the 20. In the Independence Bowl he had four punts for 180 yards (45 average). He had a long punt of 58 yards among his seven punts of 50 yards or more. He had 20 of his 64 punts downed inside the 20, only eight into the end zone. Opponents averaged 6.6 yards per return, but were able to return only 21 punts.

As a freshman in 2006, Fitzgerald had 57 punts for a 38.2 average.

Fitzgerald has had one big event in the pre-season. When Alabama started classes last Wednesday, Fitzgerald moved from walk-on status to scholarship status as Coach Nick Saban announced that he, Tiffin and defensive back Tyrone King, Jr., had been given scholarships.

"I met with Coach Saban and he told me the numbers had worked out and I would have a scholarship," Fitzgerald said. "I was surprised and not surprised. He had told me earlier he had never had a starting specialist who wasn't on scholarship. It was a matter of the numbers working out.

"I was happy for my parents and they were happy for me."

Fitzgerald and his teammates are now a week away from opening the season. "It's countdown to Clemson," he said. Bama and Clemson will open the season August 30 in the GeorgiaDome in Atlanta. Kickoff will be at 8 p.m. EDT (7 p.m. central) with television coverage by ABC.

"It's a big game for us and for college football," Fitzgerald said. "I'm sure we'll have butterflies, but I think we'll handle ourselves."

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