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Alabama Spring Football 2017: Previewing the return game specialists

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A mix of old and new faces look to kickstart a bland Tide kick return game

NCAA Football: Kent State at Alabama
Run, Xavian! Run!
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama’s return game last year was hit-or-miss. The Tide could reliably be counted upon to have to drive the distance when it returned kicks: There simply was no game breaker at kick returner. That dark cloud had a silver lining though. Unlike 2015, the kick returners did not take one for a touchdown, but nor did it turn the ball over. That is a mixed blessing to be sure: Risk/reward versus steady 20-yard returns.

The punt return game was excellent again, however...or at least it was until the third saturday in October (not that 3rd Saturday, though.) Eddie Jackson had taken two to the house and Xavian Marks had added a score to a scary punt return unit. However, after Jackson’s injury versus Texas A&M, the Tide were out of proven options and turned increasingly to talented freshman WR Trevon Diggs. That was...an adventure: freshman mistakes were coupled with fearlessness and sometimes reckless and ball control.

This year the Tide lose half of their top kick returners in ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter. The biggest loss to the return specialists is at punt returner, as star FS/PR Eddie Jackson graduated after having his senior campaign cut short. We can anticipate a mix of old and new faces this year as the Tide look to recapture its kick return form from 2015, while maintaining its recent excellence at punt returner.

Kick Returner

Boy, did we whiff on the kick return game predictions somewhat in 2016. Last year, some moron I wrote:

We've speculated/covered this a few times, but your lead returner is almost certainly going to be the 5'9", 155-pound track phenom, Xavian Marks.

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Other options include Tony Brown, assuming he is out of the doghouse following his four-game hiatus to begin the season, ArDarius Stewart (the fastest offensive player,) as well as a player that we feel also has potential in the return game, incoming Tulsa freshman Joshua Jacobs. In our running back preview, we praised Jacobs' elusiveness and straight line speed, both of which are necessary assets in the return game.

We were correct on that score, at least for half the season. Marks did enjoy some time as a kick return man last year, playing in four games and fielding seven kicks. But, in the end, like most combinations there, he was too inconsistent to hang on to a starting spot. Marks averaged just 17.7 yards on his seven kick returns. He was only called on one other time once the meat of Alabama’s schedule began, returning just one kick against the Chattanooga Moccasins.

Did Tony Brown return a kick? Nary a one. And, that whole Joshua Jacobs-at-returner thing? Yeah, that didn’t happen either (although, after a blocked punt, he was credited for a PR touchdown against Florida.)

Alabama tried several pairings, but the running back that made the rotation was freshman B.J. Emmons. Before his injury, he had worked his way into the rotation, handling seven kicks and returning one for a 26-yard average. Trevon Diggs (7) and ArDarius Stewart (8) also saw some time and were serviceable return men, each averaging at or near 21 yards per kick return.

But, in a word, the kick return game was boring.

This year, we believe incoming uber athlete, Chadarius Townsend will earn some playing time as a returner. His profile is very close to that of other recent Alabama return men: highly versatile athlete with great ball skills:

Townsend is 6th ranked “athlete” in the nation, and the 7th overall player in the state of Alabama. Like previous Tide recruits such as ArDarius Stewart, Josh Jacobs, and Ronnie Clark, Townsend primarily plays as a running quarterback for his high school. He’s also a safety, and most believe that’s where he’ll end up at the college level, though he’s also shown some exceptional ability on offense and could be a solid receiver too.

Another player to possibly emerge here is freshman WR Devonta Smith. The Louisiana product will be the fastest player on the field, and he has exceptional kick return skills. He is too dynamic to not get a look this season, although he may have the most value as a punt returner.

This is a unit that must improve from last year’s woeful 106th-ranked KR showing. There is too much talent and speed to do otherwise.

PREDICTED DEPTH CHART:

Starters: B.J. Emmons, Trevon Diggs

Rotation: B.J. Emmons, Trevon Diggs, Xavian Marks, Chadarius Townsend, Devonta Smith

Punt Returner

Like the kick return game, last season saw Alabama rotate several players at the position to find the right combination of ball skills, judgment and plain old-fashioned cajones. The season started with the terrifying prospect of Calvin Ridley at PR. Fortunately, that abortive effort ended after just four returns. The Tide turned next to a combination of Eddie Jackson, Xavian Marks, and Trevon Diggs. The shuffling paid greater dividends on this side of the ball.

Xavian Marks was more effective in the punt return game than as a kick returner. He notched 21.0 yards per return on his seven attempts and took one to the house against Kent State. However, Eddie Jackson proved to be the better option there. For whatever reason, Marks returned just one punt and one kick in November and beyond. I have combed the archives and do not see an injury or suspension listed for Marks; he was participating in drills and scout teams. However that is no guarantee that Marks was at 100% — Saban is notoriously tight-lipped about players nursing injuries. We can only hope Xavian returns to his 2016 form. If so, he is the most reliable option returning.

Trevon Diggs became the man at punt returner after the inexplicable sidelining of Marks and the injury to Jackson: 11 of Diggs’ 13 punt returns were after the Texas A&M game. Diggs was terrifying in games against Auburn and Washington, but he flashed the promise of what he could be in the SECCG versus Florida. There, Trevon returned three punts for 90 yards, including a 47-yarder in a second-quarter Tide walloping. He is dynamic and aggressive, to be sure. In his favor, he also played against the heart of Alabama’s schedule, including road games at LSU and three neutral-site championship affairs. That experience will probably earn him the first look.

Chadarius Townsend for the reasons above will also probably get a look at punt return, and, for those same reasons, I believe Devonta Smith can step in and contribute as well.

Here’s what we wrote about Smith upon his commitment:

The 6’1”, 157 burner out of Amite, Louisiana is the third-ranked prospect at his position this class. He is a tremendously explosive receiver that plants and then makes moves in the open field — think Deandre Hopkins or AJ Green-type speed and glissando body control. This is a player Alabama can rely on to turn short gains into touchdowns.

A smooth wide receiver who plays fast. He gets off the ball quick and really sets up defenders well. He is explosive on the football field. He catches the ball well and knows how to make adjustments on the ball. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he is elusive in the open field * * * He constantly runs away from defenders. He really knows how to stick his foot in the ground and shoot out of his breaks when running routes. Overall, he is a dynamic playmaker. He knows how to make big play after big play.

Lest you need convincing, here is Smith in action at punt returner:

All in all, this unit is set up for continued success for the next several years.

PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:

Punt Returner: Xavian Marks, Devonta Smith

Rotation: Trevon Diggs, Xavian Marks, Devonta Smith, Chadarius Townsend,

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