TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama junior Henry Ruggs III was surprised. Just like it’s difficult for a quarterback to overthrow the speedy wide receiver, there aren’t too many punters who can boot one beyond his coverage.
It’s been especially true this season. Heading into last week’s game against Tennessee, the struggling Crimson Tide punters had been averaging 34.5 yards per attempt, with a season-best of just 44 yards.
So yeah, Ruggs and everyone else on the punt-coverage team were caught a little off guard when Ty Perine drilled a 51-yarder near the end of the third quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium. It was 10-plus yards beyond to what they’ve become accustomed.
“[I heard] the reaction from the crowd as soon as the ball was in the air, so I knew it was a good kick,” Ruggs said. “But I definitely didn’t think it was going that far.”
While a lot of the attention during the Third Saturday in October was focused on starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa leaving the game with a high-ankle sprain, and senior cornerback Trevon Diggs sealing the victory with a 100-yard fumble return for a touchdown, Alabama’s special teams had another big game that didn’t get the attention it deserved.
For the season, Alabama and sophomore Jaylen Waddle are both second in the nation in team and individual punt returns, averaging 21.6 yards per attempt.
Combined with Alabama ranking third in kick-return defense (15.33), the Crimson Tide has enjoyed huge field-position advantages all season. Adding to that has been the kick return unit led by Ruggs (28.7 average), although the numbers are skewed because opponents have been opting to concede the yards and boot the ball short or to someone else.
Alabama has also blocked two punts, both by sophomore linebacker Ale Kaho and they were recovered in the end zone for touchdowns.
They’re a big reason why Saban referred to Kaho as “a phenomenal special-teams player” during his radio show this week.
“Man, Kaho, that boy a headhunter like he do not care,” senior safety Jared Mayden said. “When you play football, you kind of have to be like you don’t really care. You have to be ready to throw your body around.
“But Kaho … Kaho is special. He’ll go and blow up the shield every chance he gets. That’s something special. Not a lot of people can do that. And it’s not like he’s the biggest. He’s just, you can’t say he’s not giving a 110 percent effort. I mean he brings a real spark to the special-teams unit and even the defense.”
Of course, to say Alabama has been struggling with kicking and punting would be an understatement. It’s been dreadful, compounded by freshman Will Reichard dealing with a hip injury that he aggravated against Tennessee.
The Crimson Tide has made just seven of 12 field-goal attempts, missed two extra points and the net punting average of 33.6 yards is 125 out of 130 teams nationally.
That includes Perine’s two punts for 93 yards. They were the first of the freshman walk-on’s career.
The only drawback to the 51-yard kick was that it led to a good return by the Volunteers, only Perine stepped up and not just filled the gap but squared up like a linebacker and shared the tackle with Ruggs.
The fans went crazy, but not as much as the Crimson Tide bench. Consequently, Alabama ended the quarter on an emotional high en route to a 35-13 victory.
“He came up near leg, near shoulder and really hit the returner,” Mayden said. “I know I was jumping up and down when I came out on the field, and I know a lot of people on defense were slapping him on the head. I wasn’t expecting that. I think that might be one of the best things I’ve seen in a minute.”
Said redshirt junior tight end Miller Forristall: “I was supposed to be there. I actually covered the wrong way, and Coach [Jeff] Banks came to me, he was like, ‘Hey, remember how I drew up that nice graphic, and you were supposed to be in the middle?’ And I was like, ‘Ohhhh.’ And he said, ‘Yes, the punter made the tackle. And dropped the bomb.’
“But I was super happy for him.”
That was the feeling all week as more unheralded players continue to step up and contribute, which is always a good sign for a team.
Everyone was happy for Diggs and sophomore wide receiver Slade Bolden having his first career pass out of the wildcat result in a touchdown catch by Forristall.
But Perine? They’re downright thrilled for him.
"To me it's awesome because it makes you remember to not take anything for granted,” redshirt junior linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “Especially like the punter, [tight end] Giles Amos, guys like that inspire you to go harder because they chose to do this on top of everything else that they have going into this sport. They chose to deal with the discipline, going to class. Putting up with the stuff that we kind of complain about at times, so it kind of makes you not take it for granted."