For all the Crimson Tide’s success since Nick Saban’s arrival, the special teams have been an infuriatingly inconsistent unit for most of that time. Breakdowns in kick coverage, struggles with placekicking, and just a general head-scratching inability to translate the same mental discipline on display on both defense and offense have made special teams play the only year in and year out Achilles heel. Last season the Tide famously missed four field goal attempts (one in overtime) in it’s only regular season loss before finding some redemption in the BCS National Title game, while kick off specialist Cade Foster struggled to put the ball close to the end zone, much less in it. The only consistent bright spot last season were the routinely electrifying kick returns of Marquis Maze, but his departure now leaves the Tide looking for someone to continue the trend of speedy return specialists that can bail out a struggling offense with big returns and help the defense by regularly flipping the field. Once again Alabama faces another season with big question marks about this oft overlooked yet wholly important position.
Both Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster return this season, with true freshman Adam Griffith expecting to compete right away, but considering the Tide staff’s seeming inability to evaluate and develop kickers there’s still no telling what sort of improvement we can expect, if any. Foster in particular is most in danger of losing playing time to Griffith. The Tide had taken to rotating he and Shelley, with Foster handling the kick off duties and long-range field goals, but he’s yet to produce at an acceptable level in either instance. With only a 22.2% FG completion percentage and only five touchbacks out of 81 kick offs (by comparison, LSU’s James Hairston managed 16 TBs out of 70 atts), Foster needs to either show vast improvement or hope that the learning curve for Griffith is too steep for him to step in right away. Griffith comes in as the number two rated kicker in the country according to Rivals, and will have high expectations placed on him from the moment he steps foot on campus.
Shelley, on the other hand, should be relatively comfortable in his role as the preferred kicker in short yardage situations and PAT attempts. His 77.8% field goal completion percentage is actually good enough for fourth in the SEC, but it does include six attempts of more than 40 yards. At a range of less than 40 yds his completion percentage jumps to 90%, which is as automatic as one can reasonably expect from a college kicker. His five made field goals in the BCS National Championship Game were enough to secure the national title for Alabama, and unless he has a marked drop in consistency from within 40 yards don’t expect him to yield his short range role any time soon.
The term "inconsistent" unfortunately extends to the punting of sophomore Cody Mandell. Though he showed flashes of brilliance throughout the past two seasons, especially in New Orleans where he arguably out performed All American Brad Wing, the true freshman in him was evident on numerous occasions in 2010 and didn't fully leave for 2011. Mandell was named one of the most improved players over the course of the spring by Nick Saban, who praised his performance during the A Day game:
"He's really punted better all spring. We always felt like Cody really had the ability to do it, it was just consistency in whether it was drop or long steps or whatever. He has a little more maturity about duplicating what he does over and over again. I think now he's been in a place all spring where his consistency has been much, much better. Seemed to be a lot more confident in what he's doing and has done a really good job."
Mandell finished ninth in the SEC in punting average with 39.3 ypp. Amusing aside, of the top ten punters in the league Mandell had by far the least amount of attempts with 39. The next fewest attempts belonged to South Carolina’s Joey Scribner-Howard with 52, so just as long as the Tide offense can be efficient and keep the chains moving the whole issue of Mandell’s consistency becomes rather moot.
Replacing Marquis Maze won’t be easy. Though he returned only one punt for a score in 2011 (and was close to breaking one against LSU before pulling up with a hamstring injury), he routinely flipped the field on opponents and helped the Tide offense with good field position. Even before Maze, Javier Arenas was providing the same spark, so it’s rather safe to say that finding a consistent playmaker to return kicks is rather important for 2012. The leading candidate is sophomore Christion Jones, a 5’11’ 185 WR who replaced Maze in the BCS Title Game. Jones returned three punts last season for 33 yards (long of 18), and only one kickoff for 32 yards, but his speed and athleticism isn’t in doubt. The fact that the coaches were confident enough to replace Maze with a true freshman in the national title game should speak volumes about how they view his ability, so mark him down as the odds on favorite to be the primary kick returner. There’s also the possibility of using corners Dee Milliner and Deion Belue as well as shifty running back Dee Hart, who all fielded kicks during the spring. Hart was considered a leading candidate to return kicks before 2011 before being sidelined with an injury, and considering the log jam at the running back position it’s possible the staff could use kick returns as an opportunity to get the ball into his hands in space where he’s most effective.