Will Special Teams Be Special In '09?

Alabama has something of a mixed bag when it comes to special teams. In some areas, notably punt returns, Alabama is very good. In some areas, the Tide needs to improve. This year Bama has more men with a knowledge of what to do on special teams.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban offers praise for good performance and criticism when he is not pleased. Last year there were areas in special teams play that he wants improved this year.

Like most successful coaches, Saban stresses play by the kicking teams.

He said this year Alabama has "more guys who know what to do on special teams than we did a year ago, because we were so young last year."

He pointed out there is some paradox to a team getting more experienced insofar as special teams participation is concerned.

Saban used safety Mark Barron as an example of how transition affects special teams play. Saban said, "Last year Mark Barron was a freshman and had to learn to play on special teams. He was a role player on defense. By mid-year he was a fantastic player on special teams. That is the kind of guy you want making up the core of your special teams.

"Now this year, Mark Barron may get a lot more playing time on defense. So do you continue to have him be a core special teams guy, or do you need to develop someone else on special teams (since Barron will be playing defense)?

"But I think we have more guys who have experience on special teams, and I hope that's going to help us improve on special teams this year."

Saban brought up the situation of position players as special teams players earlier when a reporter asked about the possibility of Javier Arenas getting some time on offense. Arenas is a starting cornerback and also returns punts (and sometimes kickoffs). Saban said that Arenas had "a pretty full plate" and he didn't expect him to also try offense.

Although Arenas considers himself a cornerback who just happens to return kicks, Arenas has been tabbed a pre-season All-America as a return specialist.

Alabama returns other key members of kicking teams, including pre-season All-Southeastern Conference placekicker Leigh Tiffin. Tiffin is also on the Lou Groza Award watch list. The Groza Award goes to the nation's best placekicker.

Also among the very visible special teams players returning are punter P.J. Fitzgerald (who is also Tiffin's holder on extra point and field goal kicks) and snapper Brian Selman.

Saban noted in a pre-season assessment of the Tide that he wanted Bama to be better in coverage.

During the course of fall camp he has mentioned that freshmen have a chance to play on special teams, in part because he would rather not use starting offensive or defensive players if possible.

The Tide coach also has specified running backs, linebackers and safeties as being the "body types" who can be utilized on special teams in coverage and returns of punts and kickoffs.

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