Alabama 2012 Preview: Special Teams

At times in 2011 the Alabama Crimson Tide special teams were good. Other times? Not so much. One of the luxuries of having an NFL-caliber defense in the college ranks is it doesn’t really matter where you give the opposition the football: It’s a safe assumption they ain’t scoring.

As discussed, Alabama’s 2012 defensive unit is loaded with talent, but making the same assumption about where an opponent gets the ball this season may not be a good idea. At least not until the players have a few games under their belts.

Field position is always critical in a football game, and if I heard it once last season I heard it a hundred times:

“Why can’t we get a kicker who can kick it in the end zone?”

For instance in last year’s Arkansas game, the Razorbacks started beyond their 25 yard line a staggering nine times. That compared to Bama’s four. With a defense like the Tide’s 2011 unit, the extra field position didn’t amount to much, as the Hogs found the endzone but twice.

Against the fighting Chiziks, the team that couldn’t sniff the endzone without AJ McCarron laying the ball on the turf, Auburn returned the second half kick-off for a touchdown….though Auburn was in danger of McCalleb running out of bounds several times on the play. But on their other nine returns, five possessions started beyond their 25, including three beyond their 40. The Tide yielded another touchdown on a kick-off to Georgia Southern.

The problem wasn’t necessarily the coverage unit, though it’s a good thought that no matter where a team receives the ball you should put them on the ground. But when your kicker never puts the ball in the end zone but instead consistently drops the ball at the five and ten yard lines, you’re rolling the dice on big returns. Bama managed only five (5) touchbacks on the season. Literally, and statistically, when Bama kicked off in 2011 there was a 5% chance (5.56 to be exact) that the result would be a touchback. Rule changes may help this stat in 2012, as kick-offs will move forward five yards, teeing off from the 35 instead of the 30.

In the field goal category, Bama made a paltry 23 of 36 attempts, also missing a pair of extra points. Thirteen misses may not seem like much until the game is on the line. Luckily, only one game in 2011 was close enough to come down to field goals. But that one game was a pretty big one, and you never know when “that” game will be on your schedule. Seven of those 13 misses last season came beyond 40 yards, and another four misses were beyond the 50-yard range. In fact, the Tide was 0-4 from 50 yards or greater. And of course, blocks factored into some of those misses, another problem that must be corrected.

Punting was a different story, as Bama averaged 39.33 yards per punt on the season and didn’t give up a punt return for a touchdown. On the road in Gainsville the punting unit dropped all five of its punts inside the Gator 20. Bama did the same on its only two punt attempts on the night against LSU in Tuscaloosa, and consistently throughout the year got good production from this phase of special teams.

In the return game, gone is the Tide’s punt returner in Marquis Maze. Maze fielded 33 punts for 436 yards for an average of 13 yards per opportunity. His lone touchdown came on an electrifying 83-yard return against Arkansas. Two other returning Tide players fielded a combined 4 punts between them. Maze was also the dominant returner on kick-offs, taking 12 for 342 yards, and average of 28 yards a return. Four returning players have fielded a combined 5 kick-off returns.

As we have with the defense and offense, let’s take a look at key returners for special teams this season.

Jeremey Shelley (90) returns for his senior season. Shelley managed 21 of 27 attempts last season, a perfect 10 of 10 inside 30 yards…meaning if the ball was placed inside the 20 yard line it was a gimme. Beyond that mark is where it got interesting. He managed a respectable 9 of 11 between 30-39, but was 2 for 6 beyond 40. Shelley did not attempt a field goal beyond 50-yards. The senior from Raleigh, NC was also 52 of 54 on extra points.

However, Shelley of course was a major catalyst to the Tide winning its 14th National Championship, with a 5 for 7 performance against LSU in the BCS National Championship game, including a season high 44-yarder. Last year Shelley was listed as Bama’s field goal specialist for attempts 40 yards and in. His development and confidence…critical for a kicker…will be key in 2012 as games could be much closer than they were in 2011.

A high school teammate of former Bama quarterback Greg McElroy, last year Cade Foster (43) was considered Bama’s kick-off specialist. He also handled placekicking duties on attempts beyond 40 yards. The 6’1″, 218lb junior from Southlake, Texas attempted just six field goals in 2011, connecting on attempts of 45 and 46 yards against Tennessee and LSU, respectively. He was 7 for 9 on attempts the previous year

Fair or not, Foster is perhaps most notably remembered for his 1 for 4 performance against LSU in Tuscaloosa in what many were calling the biggest regular season game in college football history. I don’t know how you measure such a claim, but his misses came from 44, 50 and 52 yards away. As Alabama head coach Nick Saban pointed out afterward, it may not be fair to place the blame on the shoulders of a kicker when your offense doesn’t create better opportunities for him. Remember, LSU’s kicker that night had much closer shots at the uprights, including a chip shot for the game winner.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the 5% touchback percentage Foster contributed last season. At times Bama’s kick-off coverage was so good I thought they were intentionally trying to drop the ball inside the five in order to pen the other team inside the 20. That thought was erased by Coach Saban himself in a midseason presser when he admitted he’d rather the kickers kick it out of the endzone every time.

As mentioned, changes in the kick-off rules will likely help this stat in 2012, as kickers are given a five yard cushion this season they didn’t enjoy in 2011. The rule was created to encourage more teams to take a knee, preventing injuries that frequently occur on kick-off coverage. We’ll see how it helps Foster and Bama’s special teams in the coming season.

Cody Mandell (29) begins his junior season at punter. Mandell earned the punting honors in 2010 as an invited walk-on true freshman from Lafayette, LA. He earned All SEC freshman honors following his freshman season. His 6’4″, 202lb frame making him perfect for a punter, Mandell was as consistent field changer in 2011. He was named by the Bama coaching staff as the specialist of the week following the Auburn game, punting three times for an average of 40 yards per kick, including one stopping inside the 20.

Carson Tinker (51) needs no introduction. The Tide’s long snapper has started every game since his sophomore season. Now entering his last year, the senior from Murfreesboro, TN brings to the table a steady hand and precise placement for field goals and punts. But Tinker is probably as well-known for his role in April 27, 2011’s tornado that ripped through Tuscaloosa as he is anything he’s done on the field. His story has been well-told, losing his girlfriend in the maylay. His faith and courage following the disaster has been an inspiration, and his sense of humor is pretty entertaining (I highly recommend following him on Twitter). No doubt that sense of humor was needed when Bama’s shattered crystal football came in an accident involving his father. Still, the Tinkers and the coaching staff handled the incident with impeccable class, and Alabama’s punting and field goal units are in good hands thanks in part to Carson.

At holder of course is junior quarterback AJ McCarron (10). McCarron has served in this capacity since his freshman season. Being the starting quarterback, this can be good and bad. Good in that twice last season McCarron was on the field to execute perfect fakes that resulted in critical touchdowns (Arkansas) and first downs (LSU). But bad in that if he goes down, you’ve lost your quarterback and holder, making a shaky kicking game that much shakier. Will Coach Saban stick with the sure hand in this position for 2012? Common sense says probably so. However, Nick Saban didn’t become the greatest head coach in the game today by doing things that are common.

Here are some other contributors you might see in 2012.

It’s very difficult to project who you’ll see on special teams for Bama. One thing is for sure: As already mentioned, the Tide’s leading punt and kick-off returner in Marquis Maze is gone. Upcoming sophomore Christion Jones (22) returned a handful of punts in 2012. His sure handedness makes him appear to be in the mix but names like Cyrus Jones, the incoming freshman athlete from Maryland may get a look at punt returner as well.

Given Nick Saban’s tendency to use running backs on kick-off returns, one has to think Dee Hart (1) may get the call, along with TJ Yeldon (4). This team has no shortage of athletes who could fill the needed roles in the return game.

As for who will cover, same deal. Vinnie Sunseri (3) became a head hunter on kick-off coverage, as did Trey DePriest (33). These two should find more time on the defensive side of the ball in 2012, but that may not matter. I distinctly remember Rolondo McClain covering punts for the Tide in 2009, then staying on the field to call the defensive plays thereafter.

This coaching staff’s philosophy has been they’ll use the best eleven they have on special teams, regardless of the player’s role elsewhere on the team. Since Bama has finished with the top recruiting class in the country three of the last five years, I’d say that’s encouraging. Like Sunseri, expect to hear some key names called into duty, electrifying the crowd with good open field tackling and relentless physicality…and don’t be surprised if one of those names is incoming true freshmen Landon Collins, Denzel Devall and Geno Smith.

If Bama can make it to the final BCS National Championship game held this year in Miami, it will be because special teams play improved. With the core of its special teams specialists back, and the team-wide characteristic of great open field tackling and aggressive defensive play, it’s not hard to see that happening.

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