Kevin C. Cox
Roll 'Bama Roll kicks off its coverage of spring practice with a glance at Special Teams
National signing day is behind us and spring training looms. Based on what we know now, what does 2013 look like for Alabama football? The short answer is that it looks like more of the same: and that's a very good thing. And for the longer answer, welcome to RBR's spring football look-ahead. Over the next few weeks, we will look at who stands to do what for Alabama football in 2013, and how well they stand to do it. We will report one position grouping at a time.
We'll work our way into it by starting with one of the least glamorous of the position groupings: special teams. Alabama special teams in the Saban era have not achieved the level of excellence reached by units like the 2011 defense or the 2012 offense, but they've been good enough not to lose games. The best guess is that we'll see a similar result in 2013.
Returning from 2012 will be punter Cody Mandell, long field-goal kicker and kickoff specialist Cade Foster, and returners Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones, each of whom handled both punt and kickoff returns at times. Departing are reliable short-range field-goal kicker Jeremy Shelley and nearly flawless three-year long snapper Carson Tinker.
Three-year starting punter Mandell may be the best of the returnees. Mandell has always excelled at the pooch punt, with no less than 41 punts downed inside the 20 during his career, but it has taken year-to-year improvement to transform his long-distance punting game from the mediocrity of his freshman year, when Mandell's 39.2 punting average was the 2nd-worst in the SEC and over 7 yards a punt behind the leader, to last year's fine 44.28 average, 5th in the conference and only 1.3 behind conference-leader Dylan Breeding of Arkansas. Mandell has always been a good tackler for a smallish punter-may we never see that tested-and another year of distance improvement could see him as a 2013 all-star.
Field-goal kicking is more of a question mark. Cade Foster at times can boom them long and straight, but can achieve short and crooked at other times, with too much of the latter in 2012, when he hit only 4 of 9. The hope is that last year's blue-chipper, Adam Griffith, can take over both Shelley's and Foster's duties. If Griffith doesn't pan out, we could see some experimentation and temporizing at the position, if not an outright disaster.
Griffith will have a harder time taking over Foster's kickoff duties, though. Cade was greatly improved in that arena in 2012, securing 46 touchbacks in 99 kickoffs, compared to only 15 touchbacks in 165 kickoffs during the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
Outstanding long snapper Carson Tinker was not credited with a bad snap in either the 2011 or 2012 season, but Nick Saban took a short break from inking blue-chip position players to snag the guy called the #1 long snapper recruit in the country, Cole Mazza. Likely as not, the job will be his, and if all pans out, Tinker's loss will not be a disaster. Knock on wood.
Although Alabama returns its full complement of kick returners, there will certainly be competition in the spring on punt returns. Christion and Cyrus Jones each showed the kind of shake and bake you look for in a punt returner, but unfortunately, each Jones fumbled more than one punt. I couldn't find stats on that, so I'm going off memory, but . . . that happened, and multiple punt return fumbles is simply unacceptable. Either one of those guys figures out how to catch punts and hang onto them reliably, or else we'll see somebody else returning punts. Candidates could include Deion Belue, Jabriel Washington, Chris Black, or one of several shifty newcomers.
The Joneses will be harder to knock out of their kickoff return duties. Alabama was 23rd in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 23.95 per return, and this part of the return game was not similarly afflicted by fumbleitis.
You would expect a team as deep and talented as Alabama to consistently field strong kick coverage units, but that simply has not been the case in recent years. Alabama's kickoff return coverage was 69th in the nation, giving up a relatively robust 21.57 yards in average returns, and once again was unable to get through a season without giving up a KOR TD, this time a 98-yarder to Missouri's Marcus Murphy. The punt return unit turned in a better performance, yielding a 6.5. yard average that was tied for 36th nationally. Kick coverage units, though, tend to reform themselves entirely from year to year, so we'll just have to wait and see what 2012 bring on that score.
Hope for the best.