Personally, I’m still not over the loss of Javier Arenas, and I don’t think I’ll ever be as excited to watch the return game as I was when he was back there. In the years following, Alabama has had a mixed bag of results in the return game. Marquis Maze was mostly excellent following Arenas. The early Christion Jones/Cyrus Jones combination was an utter trainwreck of fumbles, but the former Jones ended up being a fairly solid, if not flashy, return man while the latter came into his own as a senior and wound up being a real difference maker.
Eddie Jackson had the makings of an elite returner before his season was cut short with a broken leg, and Trevon Diggs never really impressed. Then last year Diggs, Henry Ruggs, and Xavian Marks all had some major issues with actually catching the ball. Diggs shored up his hands by the end of the year, but never really inspired any real confidence.
Diggs, Ruggs, and Marks all return in 2018, so the return team may look exactly the same as it did last year. But I don’t think Saban will have any qualms with replacing the incumbent Diggs if he finds someone more suitable.
The first to come to mind would be junior running back Josh Jacobs. He returned a few kicks last season, but was just as limited there by lingering hamstring injury as he was trying to play running back. He’s a proven elusive demon in the open field, but is yet to be seen with any real experience at returning kicks.
After that is the flurry of first year players who returned kicks in high school. Kyriq McDonald took a redshirt last year, but was exceptional as a kick returner in high school with great vision and patience for following his blockers. Receiver Chadarius Townsend also took a redshirt year to learn to play a position other than just an “athlete”. He’s a blazing fast player with a knack for the big play.
In the upcoming class, you have two running back/receiver hybrid players in Slade Bolden and Jerome Ford. Ford is the faster of the two, but Bolden is tougher to bring down. Defensive back Eddie Smith is another blazing fast athlete with big play potential.
But the big two to watch this summer will be receiver Jaylen Waddle and cornerback Patrick Surtain, Jr.
Surtain, Jr. is about as NFL-ready of a player as you’ll see coming out of high school. He’s big, fast, and has unnatural body control and balance. He has a feel for finding seams in special teams coverages and keeping his feet in congested situations. However, he’ll also likely be in the thick of the competition to be a starting cornerback, so Nick Saban may not want to burden him with too many responsibilities as a true freshman.
And then there’s Waddle.
Every so often, you run across a player that, when you watch his highlights, all you can do is laugh. Waddle is one of those players. Every time he touches the ball, he’s breaking some poor soul’s ankles or leaving someone in the dust.
He just has that feel for setting up defenders to go one direction, then going 45 degrees in the other direction without changing his stride or speed or anything. He’s full speed, full time. And it takes him all of about 3 steps from standing still to get up to full speed. He has uncanny balance and can make cuts and stop-n-go moves that should defy the physics of the human body, but he does them routinely with ease.
Waddle will be the most electric return man the moment he steps on campus. He’s been compared to Percy Harvin by many scouts and interweb bloggers, and thrives on having the ball in his hands in open space.
He may not yet have the judgement and consistency that Nick Saban will want with his return men, but he’s got the ability to be truly special... and dangerous.
So, who wins the job this fall? Obviously, there may be a different returner for kicks and punts, but if one is good enough, there’s a good chance he’ll fill both roles.
Who will be Alabama’s 2018 kick/punt returner
This poll is closed
Patrick Surtain, Jr.
Other— leave your prediction in the comments