Alabama's special teams started off a bit shaky in 2015, and many Tide fans had a sinking feeling we'd get more of what we've experienced the past 2-3 years: iffy return game, terrifying field goal attempts, lackluster kick coverage.
The one constant, seemingly, was a returning all-world sophomore punter.
Boy, were we in for a surprise.
Punter J.K. Scott (Jr.)
After a freshman All-American campaign, and a Ray Guy runner-up consolation prize, most assumed that J.K. Scott would easily pick up where he left off as a Freshman. There is a sophomore slump for a reason, though, as Scott's production fell of drastically from his freshman campaign.
With Griffith's back on the mend, Scott abandoned his kickoff duties, only attempting one -- that went out of bounds. (As a Freshman, he had kicked 24 times, putting 8 in the end zone.) Despite only having one job to do, punt, Scott's production went from 48.0 yards per kick, and beautiful angled punts, to 44.7 yards per punt, with erratic placement. Moreover, those numbers are somewhat skewed by the long, flat punts he put into play that let returners get 13-15 yard run-ups before the coverage unit even made contact. Teams made Alabama pay for those flat kicks, too. Alabama yielded 10.3 yards per punt return, and 2 TDs, to opponents in 2015.
Alabama needs the 2014 J.K. Scott back in the worst sort of way. Scott is backed up by walk-on Jr. Brannon Satterfield.
PK Adam Griffith (Sr.)
Adam Griffith, the undeserved goat of the 2013 Iron Bowl as a true freshman, played much of the 2014 season with a lower back injury. It plainly showed, too. As a sophomore, Griffth only put 29% of his kickoffs into the endzone, and was a pedestrian 12-of-19 placekicking. 2015 didn't start off so hot either, as Griffith missed his first four FG attempts.
Then, the light came on. Griffith started to heal up and trust his body again. The dividends were immediate, and the SEC was placed on notice when Adam nailed a momentum-changing 55-yarder versus LSU as a tight first half drew to a close. Griffith went 23-of-28 down the stretch to finish with a 72% accuracy rate, while hitting all 62 of his extra points and burying 55% of his kickoffs for touchbacks. For his excellence down the stretch, and for flipping field position, Griffith was named Second-Team All-SEC.
Placekicking is in good hands in Griffith's senior campaign. He is backed up by walk-on Jr. Gunnar Raborn.
LS Cole Mazza (Sr.)
Cole Mazza entered college as the No. 1 longsnapper in the country. As a two-year starter, he's done nothing to diminish that potential. He is presently listed as the No. 1 LS for the 2017 NFL draft, and is projected as a 5th-6th round pick.
The Alabama return game is where graduation will be felt the hardest. Alabama returns several players that had a return here or there, and both kickoff and punt return specialists are up in the air.
Drake returned 19 KOs for the Tide last season, averaging 26.6 yards per attempt. He also notched one KO return touchdown in the National Championship game. He was a steady return man, a threat to house one every time he touched the kick, and he secured the ball well throughout his ST career. When he finally did hit pay dirt, it won a national title for the Tide.
Man, are we going to miss this guy. A four-year player in the secondary, including a two-year starter at CB, where he became a lockdown guy his senior season. He also played gunner early in his career. But, it is arguably at punt returner where his immediate loss will be felt the most. As a senior, Cyrus averaged 12.6 yards per punt return, and took four back for touchdowns, including two in one game vs. Charleston Southern.
Quietly, Alabama lost some of its better playmakers and tacklers with the graduation of other guys you don't immediately associate with special teams. This includes Michael Nysewander (FB,) Dillon Lee (LB,) Derrick Henry (RB,) and Reggie Ragland (LB.) Fortunately young talent did step up last season (Tony Brown and Minkah Fitzpatrick among them) and ILB Reuben Foster will still be terrorizing opponents' return men.
What if I told you that Alabama has lost two kickers in three months and actually has no incoming special teams specialists?
In December, Mr. Wonderleg Eddie Piniero decommitted from the Tide to go to Florida. Then, just two weeks ago, preferred walk-on PK Mitchell Wasson decommitted to attend UGA. In Wasson's defense, he always said that if UGA offered a scholarship, he would stay in state. Kirby Smart did, and Wasson was true to his word.
Alabama has not offered a punter or long-snapper the past two seasons, and has no preferred walk-on incoming for the 2016 class. Plainly, special teams recruiting must be a priority with NSD 2017, as Alabama will lose its punter, long-snapper, and placekicker.
The kicking game portion is set, features familiar faces, and stands to be excellent again: Scott, Mazza, and Griffith are your leaders here.
Where it gets dicier is at return. ArDarius Stewart is Alabama's fastest player, but had some issues securing the ball at KOR, and was persona non gratis after the Ole Miss loss. Sophomore RB Damien Harris, who has some deceptive speed and can secure the ball, looks to be the steady option at KOR. He's not a game-breaker, but did average 20 yards per return (long 30.) The other KOR spot may be open for a true speedster with solid hands, and I would not be surprised to see incoming Tulsa RB Joshua Jacobs transition into a Drake-back, utility player. RS Fr. RB Xavian Marks, the track specialist from Texas, may also get some work. Don't rule out incoming WR Gehrig Dieter or maybe even a guy like Tony Brown. Expect a mix and match approach for several games, maybe even most of the season.
Punt returner is where the speediest guy with the best hands (and utmost bravery) is most suited as a return specialist. Either Marlon Humphrey or Tony Brown look to be good options here, especially the somewhat faster Tony Brown who saw limited action at PR last season. Again, Joshua Jacobs may get a few looks in practice at PR. Among the backs, he has the best hands and can play many positions on the field, much like we saw with Cyrus Jones early in his career. Like KOR, PR is a spot that is going to take actual game reps to sort out. It is a demanding position where consistency, speed, surehandedness, and above all smart decision-making, are at a premium.