You Can't Kick Off Without A Kicker

Alabama has a pretty simple philosophy about how it wants football possessions to end. It is: "with a kick." Ideally, an extra point attempt. Next best, a field goal try. Third option, a punt. Thus Bama has either ended the possession with a score or an attempt at a score or by giving the ball back to the opponent away from the goalline. It is hoped that a punt will change field position.

Okay, so we've got that kick thing down. Now, who is going to do it?

Alabama begins spring football practice Friday afternoon, and if there is any work on the kicking game it will be with new hands. And that is new people everywhere.

Years ago, Alabama was having a terrible time with kickoffs not going very deep. It was suggested to Coach Gene Stallings that he probably had a large number of players who had handled the kickoff duties for their high school teams and that perhaps he could find a kickoff man from that group. Stallings deflected the suggestion with a classic line.

"You'd think with all those players out there I could find a left tackle," he said.

In any event, Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban and his staff may be aware of some position players who also have special teams skills.

There are all sorts of special teams. Kickoff and kickoff return; punt and punt rush/return; placekick and placekick block. And that's no including things like onsides kick teams. Each of those teams has 11 men. Alabama undoubtedly will return some of the protectors and pursuers and the like. But the so-called specialists are all gone.

Alabama seniors on the 2009 national championship team included All-America placekicker Leigh Tiffin (who handled kickoffs along with field goals and extra points), record-setting return man Javier Arenas, four-year punter D.J. Fitzgerald, and Brian Selman, the three-year snapper on both punts and placekicks. Just to add to the losses, Fitzgerald was also the holder on placekicks.

All of them were vital to Alabama's 14-0 national championship season last year. Now the Tide begins to rebuild those teams. Some of the building may be done after newcomers arrive in August, but it doesn't seem the nature of Saban to wait on something that might not happen. Spring practice starts Friday and then The University has spring break until March 22, when spring ball resumes. The 15th and final work will be the A-Day Game at 2 p.m. Saturday, April 17, at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Admission is free and ESPN will televise the event nationally.

Special teams work is under Assistant Coach Bobby Williams, but many coaches have a role in various aspects. This look at the kicking teams specialists in the last in our look at Alabama fotball positions prior to the start of spring practice.

A key ingredient in all special teams work is speed, and Bama appears to have a large contingent of fast players for coverage and return teams. That will also be a factor in the actual return men. Last year Julio Jones replaced Arenas as punt and kickoff return man on occasion. The job of punt return man, particularly, requires good hands, good eyes, and good judgment. Returnees who were on kickoff returns last year include Terry Grant and Trent Richardson. That job also includes being a good blocker, because there are two men deep and the one who doesn't catch the becomes a blocker.

For now, there is no spring concern about the holder. The man who wins the placekicking job ordinarily selects his holder. In recent years it has been the punter, which is helpful to preparation since kickers work together at practice. Sometimes a team will use a back-up quarterback, which adds the dimension of a gadget play from the placekick formation.

Another candidate may emerge to snap, but junior Carson Tinker has been around a few years as the back-up.

There are some placekickers in camp, including a new one. Incoming freshman Cade Foster has a highlight tape that shows a very strong leg, though not always accurate. He does bring promise to the kickoff chore, particularly since he was also a prep linebacker. Recent Bama kickoff coverage sometimes calls for the kicker to be a tackler. Jeremy Shelley, a walk-on sophomore placekicker, has about as limited experience as possible. He had one kickoff (to the 8), tried one field goal (missed badly), and one extra point (Good!). Recent rosters issued by the football office indicate Colin Gallager, a senior walk-on, will also be in the placekicking competition.

Alabama signed a punter this year, Jay Williams of Thomasville, but Williams did not enter The University for the spring semester and will not be available for spring practice. At one point, an Alabama roster (perhaps not official) listed redshirt freshman walk-on Sam Buckingham as a punter.

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