Saban praises his speed, vision, spirit
By Michael Casagrande
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — He is 40 yards from the nearest friendly face staring down a herd of tacklers headed his way.
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The internal clock in Javier Arenas’ head doesn’t tick, so one of the nation’s best punt returners makes the most important decision by feel:
Run or fair catch?
Make a play or play it safe?
“I hate calling (fair catches) sometimes,” Arenas said, chuckling. “That’s why I only wave my hand one time, just in case the referee doesn’t see me. I hate doing it, but it’s safe.”
Although he said taking the cautious route is rarely a bad decision, the cornerback didn’t pile up the return yards with vigilance.
The fast-talker is the active NCAA active leader in career punt return yards with 1,544, putting him 165 yards shy of the SEC record and 231 from the national mark held by former Texas Tech star and current New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker. Half of Arenas’ six career return touchdowns came last season, when he averaged 15.9 yards on 41 attempts.
Regardless of how it appears, Arenas said his objective is not necessarily breaking every one for touchdowns. He isn’t one of those “Devin Hester-type guys,” who can “shake it and make everyone miss.”
It’s about giving the offense optimal field position and not running (or dancing) his way into trouble. Alabama coach Nick Saban said Arenas’ speed, vision in traffic and competitive spirit make him successful in such a dangerous position.
The 19 yards he is averaging on 15 attempts this season equates to two free first downs for the offense, quarterback Greg McElroy said.
“He’s an offensive weapon just like Julio (Jones), Mark (Ingram), or Trent (Richardson) or Marquis (Maze),” he said. “It’s definitely encouraging for us as an offense to have him out there making plays for us.”
Arenas’ return average could be even better if it weren’t for a few costly penalties in the Arkansas win.
Linebacker Cory Reamer was flagged twice for illegal blocks, the first of which negated Arenas’ run that ended deep in Razorback territory. Still, there are no hard feelings.
“I can’t get mad at a guy,” Arenas said. “They’re the reason we’re so successful in the punt return. You put me out there by myself, and I’m never going to have anyone to argue with about blocking in the back.”
On top of the blocking, a good returner needs plenty of confidence — an intangible with which Arenas never struggled.
“It’s a scary feeling back there sometimes, especially when the game is on the line,” he said. “You make a mistake, and it’s you’re fault. You can’t blame nobody because everybody is 40 yards away.”
That faith extends to blockers split out from the line who block the gunners. Arenas’ first dropped punt resulted from eyeballing the big-hitters sprinting his direction.
No matter how well his “hold-up guys” occupy those holding a one-way ticket to the emergency room, a defender almost always finds his way to Arenas’ shadow by the time the ball arrives.
How he deals with the stray tackler defines a returner, he said.
“He’s not going to tackle me; let him come down,” Arenas said with a confident smile. “It’s not that the guy’s not good. It’s hard to tackle anybody in the open field. So if you can’t make that first guy miss, you really shouldn’t be back there. That’s why the return man typically never gets tackled by the first guy. I don’t see that happening. I don’t see that happening at all.”
There is more room to maneuver on kickoff returns, but opposing kickers have more control over kicking away from Arenas. He has returned five kickoffs for an average of 28.2 yards with a long of 61 coming against North Texas. Terry Grant has returned four kickoffs with an average of 19.2 yards.