- One came from the Ivy League. The other has melted Nick Saban's heart after a decorated career in Tuscaloosa. When Georgia and Alabama meet on Monday night with a national title on the line, punters Cameron Nizialek and JK Scott might get a lot of air time—and both deserve it. Plus, Saban's best quote from Media Day, cookie batter by the scoop in Atlanta, and the rest of a College Football Playoff-centric Punt, Pass & Pork.
ATLANTA — Even though it appears the embrace started from the other direction, Alabama punter JK Scott insists he initiated the hug. The timing of this photo that spread around the Internet like wildfire gives the impression that Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban grabbed Scott on his graduation day and said something to the tune of “Please don’t go.”
That might have made for a better story, but it isn’t true. While Saban probably does feel that way about the lanky specialist from Denver who has been one of Alabama’s best players from the moment he set foot on campus (no, really), it was Scott who wanted to show his appreciation to a coach who appreciates the hidden yards a great punter can squirrel away for his team. “Nobody hugs Coach Saban,” Scott said. “I just hugged him. I’m a big hugger.”
Either Scott or his Georgia counterpart Cameron Nizialek could get a bearhug from his coach following Monday’s national title game. The Bulldogs’ defense allows 4.7 yards a play, No. 8 in the nation. The Tide’s defense allows 3.9 yards a play. That’s the best in the country. Yards will come at a premium, and the punter who has the best night might wind up the national title game’s most valuable player. (Or he might be the player who most deserves to win the MVP, which probably will wind up going to a quarterback.)
It may seem odd to write a national title game preview about the punters, but this story is critical for two reasons. First, these teams might not have made it to Atlanta without these punters. Second, this column is called Punt, Pass and Pork. It has existed for four seasons. It has featured plenty of words about passing and about pork. But until today, it never had focused on punting.
Plus, Nizialek and Scott have had fascinating years.
In December 2016, Nizialek graduated from Columbia with an economics degree. Nizialek had spent three and a half years on campus and been part of four football teams. But he hadn’t seen the field his freshman season. According to the NCAA, he could play one more year. But the Ivy League doesn’t allow redshirting, so if Nizialek wanted to take advantage of that final year, he’d have to do it elsewhere. The son of two Duke graduates, Nizialek hadn’t concentrated on football prestige when choosing which college he would attend after he graduated from Freedom High in Woodbridge, Va. “Out of high school, my focus was to get the best degree I could,” he said. “I never focused on playing big or playing at the next level. I never thought I could play at the NFL. As I developed my career, I thought that might be a possibility.”
Nizialek averaged 42.9 yards a kick and boomed 10 punts of 50 or more yards as a Columbia sophomore in 2015. He averaged 44.8 yards a kick and booted nine 50 or more yards in ’16. Suddenly, the next level seemed possible. So Nizialek began looking for another school. He considered Georgia, Clemson, South Carolina and Virginia Tech, but of those schools, the Bulldogs probably needed him the most.
Marshall Long started at punter for Georgia in 2016, but he broke his kneecap during a practice before the Auburn game that season. That forced backup quarterback Brice Ramsey into the job. Ramsey averaged 34.7 yards on 20 punts, and it forced the Bulldogs into an awkward situation. Long’s injury required surgery, and he wouldn’t be cleared for live action by spring practice. The arrival of freshman quarterback Jake Fromm meant Ramsey, who was set to graduate in May, was a threat to transfer. (Ramsey did decide to transfer in March but changed his mind in June and remained on the team.) So Nizialek joined the Bulldogs as a walk-on graduate student. He won the starting job and averaged 44.9 yards a kick this season. He also earned a master’s degree in sport management. Georgia special teams coordinator Shane Beamer teases Nizialek when the Bulldogs play in a packed stadium. “Hey bud,” Beamer will say, “this is a long way from Columbia versus Yale.” Long in several ways. The Lions went 5–25 in the three seasons Nizialek played. Georgia had matched that win total by Sept. 30.
Still, the change in stakes hasn’t bothered Nizialek. He doubts he’ll be nervous for the national title game. He’s already punted once in Mercedes-Benz Stadium—in the SEC championship game win against Auburn—so he knows the sight lines. “You have to treat it like every other game,” he said.
Scott also has punted in the national title game venue. The Tide opened their season there with a win against Florida State. That was the game Scott debuted a new punting style that he hoped would gain Alabama more of those hidden yards.
By the end of his junior season, Scott already had put together a stellar career at Alabama. He was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award as a freshman in 2014, and he had averaged 46.3 yards a kick over three seasons with 73 punts of 50 yards or more. But it bothered Scott that opponents had returned 20 of his punts for a total of 213 yards. To him, the net mattered more than the gross, and the opponent’s starting field position mattered most.
So Scott worked all offseason to raise his drop point—where he drops the football before kicking—so he could get more hang time. This forced him to sacrifice distance (about four yards a kick), but it achieved the desired effect. Only four Scott punts have been returned this season. The total yardage on those returns? Five. Meanwhile, 25 of Scott’s 48 punts have pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line. Fifteen of those have pinned opponents inside the 10.
Scott’s improvement—and the way his new style can affect a game—was most evident in Alabama’s 24–10 win against LSU on Nov. 4. LSU returner D.J. Chark had sunk Auburn with a punt return for a touchdown a few weeks earlier, but trying to catch Scott’s soaring punts discombobulated the receiver. Chark fair caught punts on the nine-, six- and seven-yard lines. Catching one nearly knocked him down. Chark told the (Baton Rouge, La.) Advocate that Scott had changed his strategy from distance to hang time mid-game. “Had to adjust on the fly,” Chark told the paper after the game. “Never seen a guy punt the ball as high as he did. When they do it on the fly, like an in-game adjustment, [it was] something we haven’t seen.”
Saban also praised Scott afterward. “I think he changed the field position three or four times, which was critical in the game,” Saban told reporters. “This was probably [Scott’s] best game all year long in terms of not only the distance but the hang time because they were doubling the gunners. They were taking our gunners out. The gunners are usually the guys making the plays.”
With Scott punting, the kick itself usually can make the play by forcing a fair catch or by forcing the return man to abandon the idea of catching the ball at all and letting it drop. That’s why he’s the secret weapon for America’s top defense.
And it’s probably why Saban looked so happy hugging him.
A Random Ranking
It’s been a while since I’ve re-ranked a music chart. Today, I’ll choose the top 10 songs of this week from 30 years ago using the Weekly Top 40 from Jan. 9, 1988.
1. “Push It”, Salt-N-Pepa
2. “Just Like Heaven”, The Cure
3. “Faith”, George Michael
4. “The Way You Make Me Feel”, Michael Jackson
5. “Everywhere”, Fleetwood Mac
6. “In God’s Country”, U2
7. “So Emotional”, Whitney Houston
8. “Is This Love”, Whitesnake
9. “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life”, Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes
10. “Don’t Shed A Tear”, Paul Carrack
Three And Out
1. Saban seemed fairly bored with most of the questions he received Saturday at media day for the national title game—with one exception. A reporter asked Saban about his favorite bands, and suddenly he became quite animated. Here is his answer in all its glory.
“Well, I have four favorites on a DVD in my car, all right: Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles and Elton John. Now, for all you young'ns—see, one good thing about my age is we grew up in a pop culture that no one else will ever have the opportunity to live through, from Elvis Presley all the way through hard rock, Motown, all the way through, soft rock, all that. So I lived all that, so I enjoy all that. And even though my son is 31 years old, he plays guitar, he plays all the stuff from when I was going to college. So that's just proof in the pudding to me that they don't make them like they used to.
“So I have Boat Jam, when I go on my boat in the summertime, and we have—music is important, I mean, to me. I love listening to music. Do I listen to music when I work? Not really. But it does create a little bit of a different kind of mindset sometimes, a little bit of a pick-me-up, which I appreciate.”
If, like me, you’ve seen the Saban Electric Slide video, you probably also consider it definitive proof that his favorite Michael Jackson song is “Rock With You”.
2. UCF will hold a parade Monday at Walt Disney World to celebrate the national title it is claiming after going 13–0. The coaches playing in the actual national title game aren’t concerned.
“I'm fine with it. Doesn't mean anything to anybody but them,” Saban said. “They should be proud of the season they had. I know how hard it is. We've only had one undefeated season, I think, in all the time I've been around. It’s a difficult accomplishment. I think when players accomplish that, they should feel good about what they've accomplished.”
Said Kirby Smart: “To be honest with you, I don't think about it. I'm thinking about Alabama. If I was at UCF, I'd probably do the same thing.”
3. When your team wins the Rose Bowl in double overtime and earns the chance to play for its first national title since 1980, you celebrate.
For Your Ears
SI colleague—and Fox Sports television reporter—Bruce Feldman joined the podcast to preview the national championship game and to discuss the dessert item I’ll be reviewing two sections south of here.
What’s Eating Andy?
After Monday, there won’t be another college football game until Aug. 30. Set your frowns accordingly.
What’s Andy Eating?
We walked into the stall in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market expecting a gelato shop, because that’s what the sign out front advertised. At first glance, the place looked like one. A long rectangular cooler with glass walls held buckets containing different flavors. Scoops stood ready nearby. The menu board advertised a price for cups containing one, two or three scoops.
But upon closer inspection, the substance in the buckets looked slightly different. It was refrigerated but not frozen. It seemed a little more textured than ice cream or gelato even though the flavors—chocolate chip, salted caramel, peppermint, brownie—all seemed to match. “This is gelato?” I asked to no one in particular.
“No,” the man working the counter said. “The gelato is behind you.”
I turned to see a nearly identical cooler that absolutely contained gelato. I turned back and looked at the first counter’s menu board again. The wheels turned inside my brain until I arrived at the awful, beautiful truth.
“So this is all … cookie dough?”
“By the scoop?”
We had found Batter, Atlanta’s home for cookie dough in a cup. After sharing this discovery on Twitter, readers informed me that similar concepts have popped up in Chicago and New York. Apparently, the lines can stretch for hours in New York. They are not long at Batter, but they should be.
The idea of selling raw cookie dough* in large quantities simultaneously makes sense and feels completely wrong. Everyone wants to lick the spoon between the mixing of the batter and the placing of the cookies in the oven. So why not give the people their favorite part of the cookie baking process in a giant mound in a cup? Still, a bite of raw cookie dough contains so much concentrated pleasure that an entire cup of it seems dangerous. Think of it this way: Everyone loves an orgasm, but 10 orgasms in five minutes might kill a person. A scoop of cookie dough feels like the culinary equivalent of that feat.
*To answer the obvious question, there is no raw egg in Batter’s batter. It also uses heat-treated flour, so there is no need to worry about contamination. Despite the lack of eggs, the dough feels and tastes exactly like what you’d make at home.
I ordered a cup of peppermint cookie dough with M&M’s on top. My companions split between salted caramel and chocolate chip. Everyone moaned at first bite. The dough is always better than the cookie itself, and now we had entire cups of dough. We vacillated between “This is amazing” and “This is a thing that should not exist,” but we all ultimately returned to the former. A cup of cookie dough, it turns out, is exactly as amazing as you’d imagine.
The menu offers the choice of one, two or three scoops. I say this as someone who has once eaten a three-pound hamburger and twice eaten a 64-ounce ribeye: There is no way one person should consume more than one scoop in a single sitting. Your stomach can’t hold it, and your brain’s pleasure centers aren’t prepared to handle the workload.
But if you Batter responsibly, you’ll ascend to a new level of dessert decadence.