Why Alabama's special teams are better than anyone believes
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It was a disaster, right?
Ask most Alabama fans about special teams last season and that’s pretty much the standard response, that the Crimson Tide was somewhere between struggling and downright horrible.
Actually, they were pretty good.
The perception divide occurs because when most people think about special teams they’re primary focused on the guys who kick the ball. They’re actually only a small part of the unit.
“When you say special teams, you think a punter and kicker,” Nick Saban said.
“Special teams are special teams.”
As a whole they include everything from kickoffs and returns, to extra points and so on …
Consequently, when you look at the bigger picture, Alabama’s special teams were actually very good as a whole.
“We had to make a lot of changes in the kicking game last year, which really was beneficial in terms of statistics,” Saban explained. “How explosive we were on kickoff return really improved. We improved punt return explosive plays to the point where we weren’t getting the ball kicked to us so that we could return them.
“I think that it seems like we have a few more guys that really buy into playing special teams well. Coverage units did a pretty good job last year.”
The website Football Outsiders prides itself on coming up with different ways to provide unique statistics, one of which it calls a special-teams efficiency rating. The formula measures everything, from snaps to conversions, and even includes an adjustment to include the strength of opponent special teams units faced.
In 2018, the Southeastern Conference finished with the five best special-teams units in college football: 1. Texas A&M, 2. LSU, 3. Alabama, 4. Auburn, and 5. Florida. Georgia and Kentucky also finished in the top 10.
Jeff Banks, who joined the Crimson Tide as special teams coordinator and tight ends coach last year, was previously at Texas A&M. A lot of the pieces that he put into place continued to do well as the Aggies led the league in punting (winning the Ray Guy Award), kick returns and kick coverage.
With that context in mind, consider Alabama’s special teams.
Excellent return specialists are already in place. Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle may be as dangerous a punt returner as anyone in college football.
Running back Brian Robinson Jr. was one of the deep men on kick returns and may now get paired with someone like either Waddle or wide receiver Henry Ruggs III.
“It just makes me a more versatile player and I am a team player and I feel I can be anything the coaches need me to do,” Ruggs said about playing special teams, as he also played on coverage units. “If they ask me to do it, I’m going to do it. Special teams is part of the game and it’s a big factor in the game.”
With just about any football program, special teams usually features a lot of linebackers, defensive backs, running backs and tight ends. But three things stand out about the Crimson Tide:
1] It isn’t afraid to use big-name starters in other roles
2] The Crimson Tide has a bench full for former 4-star talents, many of whom are desperate to get on the field
3] Banks absolutely, positively loves speed — especially on the return teams.
So numerous wide receivers might get used this season, like Xavier Williams and Slade Bolden.
“I feel much better about the depth at that position than in the past,” Saban said. “I think that's a good thing. It also helps on special teams because a lot of those guys are good special teams players.”
Alabama has long-snapper Thomas Fletcher, who didn’t have any missed snaps last season as a sophomore, plus both holders are back, quarterbacks Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa.
As for the punters and kickers, the Crimson Tide was 13thin league punting and went 15-for-20 in field-goal attempts. However, the nine missed extra points were nothing short of terrible. Missouri was the only other SEC team to have multiple misses with three (51 of 54).
“You can’t leave points on the field,” Banks said during the College Football Playoff. “The snaps have been good, it hasn’t been the snaps. Most of the holds have been good.”
Alabama went to work during the offseason and if A-Day was an adequate representation of its progress the Crimson Tide should be much better.
Punter Skyler DeLong seems to have fixed whatever was ailing him as a true freshman, and early enrollee Will Reichard looked solid on field goals. Should he win the job during training camp it wouldn’t be surprising to see sophomore Joseph Bulovas handling kickoffs.
“The kicking game was good,” Saban said after Alabama’s spring game. “I think we’re a lot further ahead in the kicking game this year.
“We have a new freshman kicker, who kicked well today. He also punts, and he punted well today. And then we have the other guys, who actually were better today than what they’ve been in the past, which is what our hope is that we can develop them and get them to improve.”
However, here’s the strongest indication that Alabama’s special teams are heading in the right direction. Banks was one of just three assistant coaches who Saban didn’t replace during the offseason.
The players may have gotten used to it, and downplay the turnover as Saban’s process never wavers. But they’ve also been known to express their feelings when someone they like stays put.
“I can’t tell you how excited I was,” redshirt junior tight end Miller Forristall said about Banks. “When I saw all these coaches leaving, I was like, ‘Please, Lord, please can we keep Coach Banks?’
“I was so pumped that he came back. Just having the same face, the same guy encouraging you, coaching you, building you up for two years. It’s just night and day. Receive the same coaching. ‘Hey, Miller, we’ve got to work on this.’ It’s fantastic.”
This is the final story in a summer series previewing the 2019 Crimson Tide: