We wrap up our 2017 unit previews today with the group posing the most questions, the Special Teams.
Answering kicking questions from Spring
What if I told you that there aren’t any real questions remaining here; rather, Alabama faces a makeshift lineup in the kicking game that will endure season-long? It’s a solution, to be sure. Maybe not the one Alabama coaches wanted to arrive at, but a solution.
The story that has been written about Alabama special teams the last decade, one which we hoped would be righted, looks to have another chapter. As we wrote in April:
Alabama has been unable to catch a break in the special teams department the past few years: when the kicking is good, the punting has been a wobbly; when the punt returns have excelled, the kick returns have not; when the return game has been explosive, the return coverage has taken a step back.
This season, Alabama looks to finally excel in four phases of special teams under a new dedicated position coach, former Director of Ops, Joe Pannunzio — the hopes are high that returns, coverage, punting and placekicking will finally all gel in one season, at the same time, and maybe even in the same game!
That has not happened yet.
In our post A-Day wrapup pf the kicking game, CB had a couple of projections as Spring ball opened, many of which have borne themselves out:
“Unless Bulovas absolutely wows everyone in fall camp, Scott likely handles kickoff duties.”
True freshman Joseph Bulovas has not wowed in any phase of the game, to give voice to the obvious. He has a strong-ish leg, but has been unable to get the ball to the end zone consistently. Andy Pappanastos is the more accurate short-range kicker for now, but his kicks are on a flatter trajectory; a dangerous prospect for a kickoff specialist JK Scott will be handling the kickoffs.
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game is a mighty big stage for a true frosh to make his debut. I predict Scott will attempt the field goals in Game 1. Bulovas will be worked into the mix in the games that follow (Fresno State, Colorado State, at Vandy, Ole Miss).
This turned out to be true -- to some extent. JK Scott remains the most consistent, strong-legged of the troika of Tide specialists. This isn’t necessarily something to fear either. Remember, he was recruited out of high school more as a kicker than a punter by most schools, and was a three-star prospect at the position. Alabama’s plan was to use him as its punter, but more than one program wanted him for his leg (he came up just short on a 73-yarder in high school; career long 57 yards.)
So, Scott will be your deep kick and kickoff man all season, not just in Game One. And, yes, Bulovas will be worked in the mix in the games that follow. He may even see some PAT or chip shot attempts if Alabama has a sizeable margin over the ‘Noles.
However, who gets the bulk of the short work will likely depend on who is playing the best that week and who has the best head space: Andy Pappanastos or Joseph Bulovas. We are very much looking at a Shelley/Foster split workload for now, with Pappanastos/Scott serving in those roles, if and until Bulovas can improve his confidence and accuracy. I would expect to see Bulovas as much as the coaching staff can comfortably play him though: like the other freshmen these reps are for next year and beyond, not necessarily just 2017. Unlike those players though, Bulovas won’t have backup after January.
Long snapper transitions seamlessly...ok, a few hiccups
Alabama fans were spoiled by the unbroken success of Carson Tinker and Cole Mazza. Before those two, there was four-year starter Brian Selman, who like Mazza, never had a bad snap recorded against him.
There has been no indication that true freshman Thomas Fletcher has done anything to lose his presumptive starting spot as the LS for the Crimson Tide. However, some of Alabama’s kicking woes have been attributable to his snaps and on the holds. He’s been very sound on punting reps, but it is in the field goal attempts where his miscues have occurred.
Fletcher, like everyone else involved in the kicking game, will need to be much more consistent.
Puntin’ is winnin’
Good news, the best in the business is back. Not much to say about this one. Fletcher’s snaps have been good in the punting game, and Scott is maintaining his excellent form despite the additional work.
If you think you loved JK Scott before 2017, wait until this season is over.
Return game looks settled
With the loss of B.J Emmons, and the graduation of Eddie Jackson, ArDarius Stewart and Gehrig Dieter, Alabama returns just two men with substantive return experience: Trevon Diggs and Xavier Marks.
Both of those players have gotten reps in kick returns, with Diggs taking the majority of the punt return reps. To that, add freshman wide receiver Henry Ruggs III, who will see the field on returns. I’d not be surprised to see Robert Foster get some looks too at some point: he has sure hands and is the fastest player on the field. There may also be a role for freshman DB Xavier McKinney down the road.
For now, however, Diggs, Ruggs and Marks are your most likely trio of returners.
In sum, Alabama may still put it all together in the special teams department. It’s hard to grade this unit as a whole. I leans towards a solid B overall, but going into the season-opener, let’s call it Incomplete.
Outside of field goals, what area of the special teams are you most concerned with?
This poll is closed
Punting, because I’m a Barner troll.