Alabama’s Special Teams Have Been Everything from Spectacular to Ugly
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — This is the kind of luck Alabama had this past season: Every opponent made every field goal attempt, going a perfect 20-for-20.
The Crimson Tide seems to hit uprights like they were high-powered football magnets.
That’s a little unfair, of course, but Alabama’s kicking issues over the years have been uncanny. From the Kick Six to the 30-yard miss at Auburn in the final minutes that could have tied the game this past year, special teams have been emotionally agonizing for Crimson Tide fans.
They watch things like Tigers sophomore Anders Carlson make all four of his field goals from at least 43 yards and wonder if they’re jinxed.
Maybe they have been, only Alabama also finished the season with backups playing at quarterback, nose tackle, defensive end, cornerback and three linebacker spots — in addition to kicker and punter.
Nick Saban likes to do his own version of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” during Sunday film sessions with the players, and Alabama’s special teams were very much in line with that movie title.
The good, if not great, was Jaylen Waddle.
Waddle led the nation with a 24.4 average on punt returns, nearly four yards better than anyone else in college football, TCU’s Jalen Reagor (20.8), and only one other player within 10 yards.
When Alabama put him back deep to return kicks, he had the lone touchdown by the unit all season.
“He does a good job of scheming and planning things up,” Waddle said about Alabama special-teams coach Jeff Banks. “He’s the real guy — mastermind behind it.”
Thomas Fletcher also has to be mentioned as he didn’t miss a snap all season, plus Ale Kaho blocked two punts and returned one for a touchdown.
For most of the season opponents did everything they could to keep the Crimson Tide deep men from returning kickoffs, so Alabama’s numbers are skewed. They sacrificed return yards for giving up good field position.
- Kick returns: 55th in the nation (21.23 average)
- Kick coverage: 11th (17.37)
- Punt returns: 1st (24.14)
- Punt defense: 89th (9.18)
The bad, comparatively, were the coverage units, which had too many breakdowns.
Alabama had outstanding coverage units in 2018, which was why FootballOutsdiers.com had Crimson Tide’s special teams as the second best in the nation.
Last season it slid to No. 22 (fourth among SEC teams). It should have been better.
As for the ugly, every Crimson Tide fan knows that one.
Freshman Will Reichard was 4-for-7 on field goals, with all three misses 30-plus yards. However, he showed impressive leg strength before suffering a hip injury, and then aggravating it, making him unable to redshirt.
Statistically, he averaged 63.1 yards per kickoff, with 22 of 29 ending with a touchback.
Joseph Bulovas had 13 touchbacks out of 78 kickoffs, and averaged 48.9 yards per attempt.
He was 8-for-11 on field goals. The one most remembered was the 30-yard attempt hitting the upright with 2 minutes to go at Auburn. Few seem to recall that it came at the end of a 12-play, 52-yard penalty-filled drive with three false-start calls including one with second-and-goal at the 10.
“One play doesn’t win or lose the game,” Saban said at the time. “There were a lot of other plays in the game that put us in the situation that we were in. And I know nobody feels worse about it than Joe. He’s a great young man.”
But fans have seen this before.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Alabama kickers have missed 101 field goals since Saban arrived in 2007, the most by any Football Bowl Subdivision team during that span.
Overall, Alabama kickers have made 71 percent of 351 attempts.
2007: 34/25 (74 percent)
2008: 30/20 (67)
2009: 36/30 (86)
2010: 25/19 (76)
2011: 36/23 (64)
2012: 20/15 (75)
2013: 20/13 (65)
2014: 22/14 (64)
2015: 33/23 (70)
2016: 29/22 (76)
2017: 28/19 (68)
2018: 20/15 (75)
2019: 18/12 (66)
The article went on to place the most blame on the holders, who have often been quarterbacks.
Finally, Alabama struggled mightily on punts as well. In net punting, which means taking the length of the kicks and subtracting the return yards, Alabama was 118 in the nation at 35.64 per attempt.
Walk-on Ty Perine averaged 44.69 yards on 13 punts. Mike Bernier had a terrific final game in the Citrus Bowl, averaging 42.33 yards including two going 50-plus yards, and four landing inside the 20.
Sklyer DeLong struggled, averaging 33.0 yards on 10 attempts and Reichard had four punts for 38.00 yards prior to his injury.
Alabama hasn’t added any special-teams players in recruiting, so the approach moving forward appears to simply see what Reichard can do when healthy, and continue working with the others.
Regardless, for the first time in quite a while it won’t be relying on a freshman specialist in 2020.
Tide in Transition
This is the ninth story in a series on BamaCentral: