Alabama looks to kick special teams struggles

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Alabama looks to kick special teams struggles

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

CW / Hannah Saad

There aren’t many things Alabama football is terrible at. Losing games, disappointing fans and organizational disarray are on the list — as are, in some cases, the Crimson Tide’s special teams.

Alabama ranks No. 128 out of 130 teams, and dead last among 64 Power Five teams, in ESPN’s special teams efficiency rating. Efficiency adjusts for strength of schedule and attempts to measure the special teams’ impact on the final scoring margin.

Alabama’s special teams efficiency has consistently lagged behind the offense and defense’s rankings over the last decade. The defense has never finished outside the top 10, and the offense has finished in the top 10 eight times, but the special teams’ average rank is No. 50, not including this year.

“Special teams,” of course, refers to more than just making field goals and punting the ball a long way. It encompasses punt and kickoff return, punt and kickoff coverage, and the field goal team. It’s a group effort, but like a quarterback with an offense, kickers and punters determine the group’s reputation.

“Our kickoff coverage is very good, punt return is very good,” coach Nick Saban said. “Where we need to improve, I think, is execution by specialists. So in the areas where we’re ranked very low, whether it’s net punt or punting average or whatever, it has a lot to do with who’s punting.”

He’s mostly right. The struggles of the team’s kickers have been well-documented, with 107 teams sporting a higher field-goal percentage and 86 having a better extra-point percentage.

Alabama ranks 127th in gross punting average, which is the distance from the line of scrimmage to where the ball is fielded by the returner. Gross average is mostly applicable to the punter since it simply measures the length of the punt. 

Net average, on the other hand, also includes returns, and thus indicates more about the punt coverage team. Despite the Crimson Tide ranking fourth-to-last in the length of punts, it ranks No. 13 in return yards allowed, so the punt coverage team is making the punters’ struggles less noticeable.

The kickoff coverage has been even better. A team with a prolific offense like Alabama’s would usually allow more kickoff returns because it scores so often, but strong-legged freshman kicker Will Reichard has boomed kicks through the end zone for touchbacks all year.

Alabama ranks No. 18 in fewest kick returns allowed and No. 8 in yards per return, so it effectively limits both punt returners and kickoff returners.

“I think their coverage teams do a great job,” said Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, whose Aggies will host Alabama on Saturday. “When they’re kicking off, they’re continually crisscrossing guys and mixing guys in the lanes. Punt, the same way; they get off and do a really good job, so they’re well-coached, and the key is they have really good players to do it with.”

Alabama’s punt return team has also been mostly successful, ranking No. 9 with nearly 18 yards per return. That doesn’t include sophomore Jaylen Waddle’s 77-yard return against New Mexico State that was nullified by penalty, and it also doesn’t include Waddle’s muffed punt against Ole Miss.

The kickoff return team is ranked No. 118, but with only six returns, the returners haven’t had as many chances at a long return to boost the averages.

In advance of Texas A&M hosting Alabama on Saturday, Fisher called Waddle and junior receiver/kick returner Henry Ruggs III “dynamic.”

“Waddle and Ruggs both are guys that if you give them a seam, they can run away from everybody on the field and they can make you miss even when you have them hemmed up,” Fisher said.

Fisher, who was LSU’s offensive coordinator under Saban for five seasons at LSU, added that creating space for returners is an overlooked aspect of special teams. Disrupting tacklers gives returners more freedom to plan their route and more time before they have to make a tackler miss.

“You probably peek at the coverage probably twice before you have to judge the ball and receive the ball, and all of it is basically your judgement,” senior cornerback/returner Trevon Diggs said. “If you feel like you can make a play, you make a play.”

Diggs doesn’t return punts anymore, but Waddle will be facing one of the best punting units in the country on Saturday. Last year Texas A&M punter Braden Mann won the Ray Guy Award, which is awarded annually to the best punter in college football.

The Aggies ranked No. 3 in special teams efficiency and No. 1 in net punting yards last year, with Mann’s 51.0 net yards per punt setting a new NCAA record. He also set a record for longest punt average in one game, averaging 60.8 yards per punt against Alabama last year.

“Their special teams is, like, ridiculous,” said junior safety Xavier McKinney, who played extensively on special teams as a freshman. “I think they pride themselves on special teams, and I think they do a really good job of playing on special teams.”