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BamaCentral 22 for '22: Who Will Return Punts for Alabama this Season?

JoJo Earle enters the fall as the favorite for the Crimson Tide's punt-returning role, but he'll face some serious competition.

After falling one win short of adding a 19th national title last season, Alabama will look to rebound and take the next step this year. The Crimson Tide returns a loaded roster, including reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young and a rebuilt offense as well as one of the most talented defenses in the Nick Saban era.

Alabama will open its season on Sept. 3 when it hosts Utah State inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. To help pass the time, BamaCentral’s Joey Blackwell, Tony Tsoukalas and Katie Windham will discuss 22 topics and questions concerning the 2022 season.

Today we continue our series by asking who will take on the role of Alabama’s punt returner this season.

Tsoukalas' take

When asked about his team’s return game this spring, Nick Saban referred to the unit as “much improved.” That’s a good sign for the Crimson Tide, especially on punt return where it managed just 8.0 yards per attempt — its lowest average since 2017.

JoJo Earle returns after averaging 5.5 yards on 16 punt returns last season. That average would have been much higher if not for a few costly holding penalties that wiped out some of his bigger returns. Still, Alabama looking to establish more of a consistent spark in its return game this season.

Along with Earle, Saban mentioned cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry as well as wide receivers Jermaine Burton and Aaron Anderson for the role. Of that bunch, I’d actually take the latter.

Anderson comes to Alabama after establishing himself as an elite returner at Edna Karr High School in Louisiana where he found the end zone 20 times on kickoffs and punts throughout his varsity career. The freshman receiver flashed his big-play ability during spring camp, using his elite speed and shiftiness to break off big plays on offense.

McKinstry appears set to take one of Alabama’s starting cornerback roles while Burton and Earle are likely to start the fall ahead of Anderson on the receiving depth chart. With that in mind, putting Anderson on punt return duty would be a nice way to utilize his playmaking ability early in his career.

Blackwell's take

I have one name for you: Aaron Anderson.

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Sure, Anderson might not be the starting return man for Alabama football this season, as he has a lot of competition. He does, though, have a solid resume that shows that he would greatly benefit the Crimson Tide if he’s given a chance at the position.

At Edna Karr High School in Louisiana, Anderson took back 20 kickoffs for touchdowns and punts throughout his four years. In the 2021 season opener alone, Anderson took back three kickoffs for touchdowns.

Anderson might not have the size that he needs to be a starting wide receiver for Alabama this season, but he certainly has the speed and agility he needs to be a solid returner.

“Little Aaron Anderson had a couple big plays, did a nice job, really good run-after-catch ability,” Nick Saban said during spring practices. “He took a 5-yard play and ran for 35, 40 yards against the first-team defense.”

Even if that play was on a reception rather than a kickoff return, you have to like what Anderson was able to do against the first-string Crimson Tide defense using his speed and quickness.

Anderson has a stacked roster ahead of him, with JoJo Earle likely leading the pack as the favorite to be the Crimson Tide’s featured returner in 2022. Kool-Aid McKinstry and Jermaine Burton are also two likely candidates. But with Anderson not being a featured wide receiver next to Earle and Burton, you have to like his chances.

Windham's take

Since I picked JoJo Earle as my breakout player for this season, he’s definitely my go-to guy for punt returns. My memory of his returns was a little better than what the stats showed, but that was also partially due to penalties bringing back a few nice returns. So maybe the bigger question is how many times will Nick Saban rip off his headset because a return is called back for a block in the back?It will certainly be an area of focus for new special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler.

During his freshman campaign, Earle had 15 returns for 88 yards. He split the role most often with Slade Bolden, who is now off to the NFL. Punt returner can be a pressure-packed role for a new player prone to fumbling, and I think Earle having experience at the position last year gives him an advantage.

Yesterday, we talked about Alabama’s 2016 defense, and another important factor for that team during that season were non-offensive touchdowns or NOTs. Two of those were punt returns for touchdowns by Eddie Jackson. These type of plays can be huge momentum shifts for a team, and Earle’s elusiveness and speed are perfect as a punt returner to provide a spark for the Crimson Tide this season.