Grading Bama's Kicking Game

Special teams are sometimes overlooked by the average football fan in favor of high scoring offenses and stingy defenses. Most fans only notice special teams when something goes wrong. Extra points, automatic; Alabama is punting again, pass me another hot dog.

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Alabama opens its season on September 5 against Virginia Tech in Atlanta. Virginia Tech's head coach, Frank Beamer, is well known for his special teams and knows the value of spending valuable practice time working on perfecting the kicking game.

How many times have we heard coaches and analysts say a close game will come down to mistakes and special teams?

I am sure that fact is not being overlooked by Alabama's Nick Saban. Saban sees the value in the kicking game and it is worked on daily in practice.

In 2009, Alabama's kicking game will be in the hands of senior place-kicker Leigh Tiffin and senior punter P.J. Fitzgerald.

Tiffin is the son of Alabama's legendary place-kicker Van Tiffin, hero of the 1985 Iron Bowl. Tiffin is a solid kicker and ranked 12th overall among all Division I place-kickers in 2008.

That ranking doesn't tell the whole story, as Tiffin was called upon to attempt 10 of 29 field goals from 40 yards or longer in 2008, accounting for six of nine of his misses. He missed only one extra point out of his 47 attempts.

Tiffin also handles kickoff duties for the Tide and doesn't really seem to have the leg strength to put the ball in the end-zone consistently. This is due, in part, to Tiffin being required to kick toward the coffin corner instead of straight away, taking some distance off his kickoffs.

Alabama needs considerable work on its kickoff coverage, coming in at a below average 75th, and has allowed an average of 21.79 per return.

Looking at Alabama's punting teams also paints a picture that says improvement needed.

Fitzgerald ranked No. 41 in 2008 among all Division I punters and averages 41.14 per punt. Alabama's punt coverage is ranked way down at No. 61 and that, along with the kickoff coverage, has allowed opposing teams to gain some pretty good field position. In a close game, losing field position can change the outcome.

On the offensive side of the kicking game, things look much better, thanks to Alabama senior defensive back and return specialist Javier Arenas.

Arenas was ranked No. 6 in punt returns and accounted for over 650 yards, including several game breaking returns for touchdowns. Teams feared Arenas so much that in many cases they punted the ball out of bounds rather than face the possibility of Javier returning the ball.

On kickoffs, opposing kickers avoided kicking the ball to Arenas, and in some cases, were called out by their head coach when they failed to do so.

All in all, Alabama's special teams play deserves respect but could use work as far as coverages are concerned—a fact I am sure has Coach Saban's attention.

Improvement is definitely needed in the kicking game for 2009, and I would expect any possible flaws to be exposed right away against Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech.

If Alabama is going to reach that championship level, the kicking game will become more and more important as time goes on. As team depth continues to improve, more quality athletes can be used on kickoff and punt coverage.

In the past, former Alabama coaches didn't see the need or didn't have the luxury of spending valuable scholarships on kickers and punters. That is about to change at Alabama.

For now, Alabama's coverage on kickoff and punt coverage is an area of concern in 2009. Field position in close games can make or break momentum. Alabama needs to improve in this area if they have any ambitions of repeating as Western Division representatives to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta on December 5.

Overall, I would give Alabama a C- in its kick coverage and a solid B in place-kicking. Special Teams Coach Bobby Williams needs to be burning the midnight oil trying to solve Alabama coverage problems in its kicking game, as should Head Coach Nick Saban.

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