Beat Writer Breakdown, Day 4: Ryan Black and Marq Burnett talk special teams

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 28, 2013 

Editor's note: Each week, the War Eagle Extra blog normally has five questions with the beat writer of Auburn's opponent. This week isn't any different; the only thing that has changed is the format. Instead of running all five questions in one post on Thursday evening, Alabama beat writer Marq Burnett (who works for The Anniston Star in Anniston, Ala.) and Auburn beat writer Ryan Black will tackle one question each day, beginning Monday and running through Saturday, when each will give their prediction on this year's Iron Bowl.

Check back each afternoon as we look at a different aspect of the matchup. Today looks at the special teams units for both sides and what role they may play in the game's outcome.

Ryan Black: Alabama and Auburn are the only two teams in the league to have both a kick return and punt return for a touchdown. And the Tigers senior specialists — punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey — have been solid all season on punts and kickoffs. One thing Auburn hasn't had to do this year, however, is rely on a game-tying (or game-winning) field goal. In that same vein, neither has the Crimson Tide. So how confident is Alabama that Cade Foster can win Saturday's contest if called upon in a late-game situation?

Marq Burnett: I think Alabama is very confident in Foster's ability to make a kick in a late-game situation. That being said, I'm sure they also don't want to put him in that situation. I'm a believer of not letting a game fall into a kickers' hands because weird things happen. Just look at Missouri. Missouri would be undefeated if not for a missed chip-shot field goal.

I'm sure Alabama's coaches, players and fans would rather the game be won on a touchdown or a defensive stop than have to sit through a tense field goal kick where literally anything can happen.

Burnett: This season, one of Alabama's biggest strengths has been its ability to pin teams deep in their own territory on punt coverage and stop teams from getting past the 20-yard line on kick coverage. How does the Tigers' return game compare to the Tide's coverage units?

Black: I can assure you of this: No team will test Alabama's coverage units more than Auburn will this weekend. The Tigers have possibly the best complement of returners in the conference. (And yes, I'm aware that Alabama has Christion Jones, but he's a one-man band when it comes to punt and kick returns.) In Chris Davis, Auburn has the top punt returner in the league by average — and it's not close. The senior corner is averaging 22.5 yards per return, more than eight yards ahead of Jones at 14.2. That average includes an 85-yard touchdown against Tennessee. That same game also saw Auburn's Corey Grant return a kickoff 90 yards for a score. It was the Tigers' second kick return for a touchdown this season, following Tre Mason's 100-yard effort in the season opener against Washington State. Along with those two running backs, receiver Quan Bray also figures into the kick return rotation. Regardless, the Crimson Tide will need to be on their toes on every return Saturday, as the Tigers have proven they can (and will) take advantage of even the slightest opportunity.

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