TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Jeremy Shelley heard all the summer chatter.
The Alabama kicking game was in trouble. Veteran Leigh Tiffin was gone, and a few unproven players were taking his place.
Uncertainty ruled, but Shelley didn’t mind.
“Of course I heard it, but it really doesn’t affect what I’m doing on the field,” the sophomore place-kicker said. “They honestly haven’t seen us out there. They haven’t seen what we can do, so, of course, nobody is going to put all their money into it. It’s not really anything we had to worry about or think about too much.”
Through eight games, the worst-case scenario has yet to play out in the Alabama kicking game.
Heading into the Tennessee game two weeks ago, Alabama coach Nick Saban said the specialists have done “reasonably well” adjusting to the pressure of SEC competition, but he still was looking for more consistency.
Shelley, the only returner among the four punters and kickers, has been a consistent piece of the No. 5 Crimson Tide as it heads to Baton Rouge for a 3:30 p.m. game Saturday against No. 12 LSU. With help from true freshman Cade Foster, Shelley has paced the field-goal crew that has connected on 14-of-18 attempts and missed just one of 33 extra point tries.
The .778 success percentage on field goals puts Alabama’s kickers seventh in the SEC, although only Auburn (.798) has more attempts with 19.
Shelley is the primary option, Foster is called in for the longer field goals and on kickoffs. If the line of scrimmage is at the 25 or in, the sophomore typically goes in, and if it’s deeper, Foster gets the nod. Shelley was right at the edge of his range when he nailed a 42-yarder at Tennessee two weeks ago to set a new career mark from the same distance from which he misfired against Mississippi.
Foster made 4-of-5 attempts from 40-49 yards with a season-best of 49.
With the offense struggling late in drives in recent games, the work load has increased for Shelley and Foster. Of their 18 total attempts, 10 came in the past three games after trying no more than two in each of the first five games.
The one challenge neither has faced is a pressure-packed late-game attempt. In fact, they have been called upon only twice to try a kick in the fourth quarter. Shelley’s 36-yarder at Arkansas was instrumental in the second-half comeback and the highlight of his year. It was the first pressure kick he said he has faced since his freshman year of high school.
“In this league, you always have to prepare for that kind of thing, because all the games are so close and all the games do have such high intensity to where most of the time it’s going to come down to maybe a made or missed field goal or just a few points here or there.”
Two weeks after making the crucial kick against the Razorbacks, the opportunity was taken away when Shelley faced another 42-yarder. But Alabama opted for a fake in the fourth quarter in the loss at South Carolina. The pass from holder AJ McCarron to Ed Stinson fell incomplete on a play in which Shelley needed to keep his cool.
“Really, all the way until the snap, I focus on doing exactly as I am going to kick the ball,” he said. “So I’m not even thinking about it, just focus like I’m going to kick a ball. Once I’m set, I know what’s going to happen and go where I need to be.”
Pre-kick preparations are not too over-the-top for the former soccer player who decided not to acquire the quirkiness that often comes with place-kickers.
“I’m not too much of a head case when it comes to all that,” he said.
Shelley went on to compliment the example set by the previous superstition-less kicker at Alabama. He still keeps in touch with Tiffin, a three-year starter from Muscle Shoals, who was a Groza Award finalist as a senior in 2009.
Shelley’s baptism didn’t come under the same fire as his predecessor, because he took over at the beginning of a season instead of replacing an injured veteran mid-freshman year as Tiffin did in 2006.
“In the beginning, of course, you’re going to have a few jitters,” he said. “But as the season’s gone on, I’ve really gotten comfortable — way more comfortable than when I started. I’ve just been putting the ball through the uprights.”