How Special Teams Help Bama Win

"Special teams" refers to all aspects of kicking teams--more situations than in any other in football. There is a perception that those who can't play offense or defense play on special teams. That's not entirely without basis, because young players frequently begin play on kicking tgams, but a team that doesn't have good players on its kicking teams is not likely to have success.

This update on Alabama special teams play is the second in a series examining how Alabama became the nation's number one team in 2008.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban recently discussed the use of "starters" (meaning players who start on either offense or defense) on special teams, and noted that for the most part a player who is an offensive or defensive starter will play on no more than one special team. As an example, he pointed to safety Rashad Johnson, who had two key plays in punt coverage (downing punts inside the Mississippi State five-yard line) in Bama's last game. Saban said that Johnson would probably be Alabama's best player on all special teams, but he is not utilized on others.

Saban also pointed out that a player like linebacker Cory Reamer, who starts but comes out of the game in passing situations, may be used on more than one kicking team.

Although we generally think of the specialists—the punters and placekickers and return men—in considering special teams, there are 11 men on each kicking team. And there are a number of teams: punting and punt rush and punt return; kickoff coverage and kickoff return; onside kicks and hands teams for returns; kicks and returns after safeties; field goal and extra point teams and teams that attempt to block them.

There have been occasional blips on punt protection and punt and kickoff coverage and field goal kicking, but overall special teams play has been a positive as Alabama has forged an 11-0 record and number one national ranking.

It is possible the kicking game will play a role in next Saturday's Alabama-Auburn game. Kickoff at Bryant-Denny Stadium will be at 2:30 p.m. CST with television coverage by CBS.

Alabama had good reason to expect competent play from most of its special teams this season. Coverage and return teams rely on tough athletes with good speed, and Bama seemed to have enough of those. Players like Chris Rogers and Marquis Johnson have been outstanding in kick coverage. As for the specialists, all returned from last season.

Although he has had a couple of misses—most critically a chip shot at the end of Alabama's game at LSU when the game was tied—placekicker Leigh Tiffin has had a very good year for Alabama. Not only has he made key field goals (including a 54-yard field goal to start Bama scoring this season in the opening game of the year against Clemson), he has improved as a kickoff man. And the word from insiders is that his lively leg makes him a threat if ever pressed into action as a punter. He has worked on that phase of the game to be a back-up punter.

Tiffin is a junior in his third year as a regular and first year as a scholarshipped player. Statistically, he ranks among the conference leaders. He is Alabama's scoring leader with 87 points, having made all 39 of his extra point kicks and 16 of 23 field goals. Opponents average 22 yards per kickoff return against the Tide.

Placekickers have the opportunity to provide dramatic victories. But the most exciting aspect of special teams play is the return game.

Most teams have the good sense to kick away from Alabama return specialist Javier Arenas. Mississippi State didn't do that in Bama's last game. Arenas returned one punt to set up a touchdown and returned another for a touchdown. He has been outstanding for the past two years, a game-breaking magician who is in the Alabama record book with his five punt returns for touchdowns (two this year).

Arenas hs returned 36 punts for a 14.9 yards per return average and 17 kickoffs for 22.6.

Quick! Who is Alabama's snapper? That's right. Most people don't know the snapper's name unless he has a bad snap, and Brian Selman has been just fine on punt and placekick snaps for the past two years.

On field goal and extra point attempts, Selman is snapping to P.J. Fitzgerald for the second consecutive year. Alabama uses the punter as the holder because kickers are working together during practice. If, for instance, a quarterback is used as the holder, he would have to leave his work on offense to go practice with the placekicker. Tiffin is very comfortable with Selman as holder.

But, of course,, that is not Fitzgerald's primary responsibility. He is the Alabama punter.

Prior to this year, it was not always a positive when Fitzgerald was called on to punt. The junior, who was added to the scholarship roll this year, had been Bama's punter the past two years, but with mediocre results. He had averaged 38.2 yards per punt on 57 kicks as a freshman and had 64 punts for a 38.7 average last season.

This season, Fitzgerald has 46 punts and has improved to an average of 42 yards per kick. He has a long of 56 yards, has had 12 fair caught and had 13 downed inside the opponent 20-yard line.

Saban has commented on several occasions that Fitzgerald's punting has been valuable for Bama having a field position advantage.

Among special teams performers, his improvement ranks as perhaps most critical to Bama success this year.

NEXT: An update on the defense

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