TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Perhaps no unit was impacted more by graduation than Alabama’s special teams.
Between the place-kickers and punters, a grand total of two collegiate kickers returned to the Crimson Tide this season.
Through seven games, though, the transition to a completely new set of specialists — including the long snapper and holder — the breakdowns have been kept to a minimum while improvements are notable.
Coming off a game in which special teams played a big factor and approaching the anniversary of a game that hinged on a combination of successful and blocked field-goal attempts, Alabama coach Nick Saban said the Tide has “done reasonably well on special teams.”
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Statistically speaking, the 2010 special teams are ranked higher in five of the six major statistical categories compared to the 2009 group through seven games. Only the punt return average — led by school and conference record holder Javier Arenas — is ranked higher than the current squad.
Kickers Jeremy Shelley (sophomore) and Cade Foster (true freshman) connected on 80 percent of their field-goal attempts (80 percent). They replaced Leigh Tiffin, who scored all 12 points against Tennessee last season, with two of his successful field goals coming from beyond 50 yards.
True-freshman punter Cody Mandell has been more streaky, with his average boot traveling 39.6 yards to rank 10th in the SEC. But he is coming off a performance against Mississippi in which he pinned the Rebels inside the 20-yard line on four occasions as Alabama controlled the field-position battle all evening.
And in a flash back to last season, the Tide called on field-goal kickers four times Saturday night. The first three split the uprights before Shelley’s 42-yarder late in the fourth quarter missed the mark.
“We haven’t had the big negative play in special teams so far, which I think is something you have to continue to work on all the time, so that you do control vertical field position,” Saban said. “Our specialists can be a little more consistent, but I think they all have promise and have done a good job to this point.”
Allowing the big play was a big issue early last season.
Virginia Tech and Florida International returned a kickoff for a touchdown in each of the first two games of the 2009 season. Through seven games, kickoffs netted 39 yards last season; the number has improved to 44.6 this season.
Foster, a former high school linebacker who handles kickoff duties, is playing a part in that. He has six total tackles by taking a proactive approach to stopping returners.
Running back Trent Richardson also enjoys the rush of gunning for the return men on kickoff coverage, but he also doesn’t mind fielding kicks on the return team.
“I enjoy it a lot because I can show all my abilities and show off my speed,” said Richardson, who has five tackles. “And I love being the defender down there … and someone’s trying to block me, and I just overpower him and get to the runner. I mean, because playing running back, you get tired of getting hit all the time. You want to get somebody hit, so I like giving people hits too.”
The one area Saban said he was most concerned with entering the Mississippi game was punt return, but those worries were quelled by Marquis Maze and his team of blockers. Replacing the injured Julio Jones as the deep return man, Maze averaged 21 yards per return in six attempts. The highlight was a 37-yarder aided by the Alex Watkins’ block that eliminated two would-be tackles in one move.
“Well, the guy out-kicked his gunners, so it gave me a lot of room to work,” said Maze, the SEC Special Teams Co-Player of the Week. “My protection just gave me a lot of help, and I just made the runs. Took some hits, but I’m all right.”
One such hit came late in the first half, when Maze lost a fumble that set up a Mississippi field goal.
The Crimson Tide’s only other costly special-teams breakdowns came in the loss at South Carolina.
Replacing long snapper Brian Selman, who never botched a delivery in four years, Carson Ticker had two imperfect deliveries.
A low snap to Mandell led to a 15-yard punt, giving the Gamecocks prime scoring position that led to a 38-yard touchdown drive to put South Carolina ahead 14-3.
A second low snap late in the second quarter contributed to Shelley missing a 31-yard field goal after a 15-play drive.
Michael Casagrande is an independent correspondent. You can write to him at email@example.com