Josh touched on this in his “What to Watch...” piece earlier this week: who to watch on Saturday will mainly involve learning some names and jersey numbers. After another solid special teams season, Alabama’s kicking game is decimated. And, as Brent also hit on in his unit preview, returner is still very much an open question; one that has not been adequately answered since Cyrus Jones and Kenyan Drake went to the NFL and Eddie Jackson was injured.
Well, Alabama loses a short field goal specialist who hit almost 78% of his attempts, was perfect on XPs, and after 8 games led the SEC in kicking efficiency. Andy Pappanastos trailed off as the games grew more important, but he had a solid year (wow, déjà vu.)
But, the loss of J.K. Scott, one of Alabama’s field position weapons for four straight playoff runs, is a killer. A three-time All-American and two-time Ray Guy finalist, the affable, fan-favorite Mr. Scott will be earning some big time paychecks on Sundays for the next decade-plus.
But, hey, we’ve got some long-snappers back?
Yes, yes we do.
The Crimson Tide welcomes back to the roster not one, but two long-snappers. If you’ve not read it, take a look at CB’s piece on the dark horse candidate who came in and won the job for the kicking game LS, Scott Meyer.
Have you ever heard the quip about “if you haven’t heard his name called, he is doing a good job”? That applies none more so than to long snappers. Meyer is the primary long snapper on PAT and field goal attempts for the Tide. Despite a few difficulties by Bama kicker Andy Pappanastos this past season, Meyer was given a perfect grade on all chances. That is 28 field goal attempts and 64 PATs without so much as an error.
For the Class of 2016, 247sports awarded stars (from three stars down to one) to 16 long snappers. Meyer was not among them. Among the Class of 2016 long snappers at Rubio Long Snapping/Chris Sailer Kicking Camp, he ranked 12th at the position. Despite this lack of hype, Nick Saban and some eagle-eyed assistants saw something in Meyer after he had camped in Tuscaloosa.
How did Meyer take the job over the person we presumed would be the kick/PAT long snapper, Thomas Fletcher? Well, he was relegated to the punting unit.
I spoke with Cam Mellor at Pro Football Focus about some suspected mechanical issues from Fletcher. He did RBR a solid and graded out Fletcher’s performance. Here follows his verbatim email to us:
Pulling some of the data I have on long snappers now — and while our algorithm isn’t complete for college special teams grades — I do have the several of his [Fletcher’s] metrics, and where they ranked among 104 long snappers across the country, with at least 40 snaps played.
Thomas Fletcher had 55 snaps on punts, 5 of which we classified as a ‘bad snap.’ His snap accuracy % of 90.9% ranked him 64th out of those 104 long snappers on punts, but he was a perfect 10-for-10 on his snaps for PAT/FGs.
His snaps averaged 0.83 seconds, which tied him for 65th longest to get to the punter.
(Huge thanks to Cam and Pro Football Focus. Again, go throw some traffic their way.)
So, like Meyer, Fletcher did very well on kicks and PATs. Where he struggled was in the punting game. Part of that may be his size: the former Sailer Kicker Camp LS award winner (and No. 3 overall LS) came to campus at a tiny 230 pounds. Throw that in with general true freshman-ness and the transition may have been overwhelming. We’ll see what a year with Scott Cochran does.
It seems odd to say, but there may actually be two long-snapper position battles that last through the fall. Meyer was the steadier performer, but Fletcher is more versatile and has the better long-term upside.
New names to learn
Joseph Bulovas: Bulovas was, to phrase this as gently as possible, a hot mess last fall. Thought to be the answer to Alabama’s kicking woes, he was inconsistent on kickoffs, shanked XPs, was woeful on field goal attempts, and generally seemed overwhelmed by the step-up in competition. After a redshirt year, he has bounced back to a have a really nice spring, with Saban specifically singling out the kicking game on more than one occasion as being solid.
Spring information is always a bit tough to come by, but we know that [Joseph] Bulovas made four of five field goals in the last scrimmage that “weren’t chip shots” and did OK on kickoffs. DeLong handled kickoff duties in high school so there may be some competition there.
Fingers crossed there, but we’ll very likely have at least a two-way, and perhaps three-way, kicking battle when Fall Camp opens and Temple grad transfer Austin Jones comes in to battle at least Bulovas and perhaps even Bulovas and DeLong.
Punting seems the far steadier unit at this stage of the game. Freshman EE Skyler DeLong is a J.K. Scott clone, both in terms of leg strength and frame (he’s a lanky 6’4”, 181). The UA All-American was, depending on the service, the nation’s No. 2 or 3 overall punter and is considered a hang-time specialist, perhaps the best in the country at last year’s Kohl’s Punting Camp.
Even better, Alabama flipped his commitment from Tennessee (HOW YOU LIKE THAT FIELD POSITION NOW, JEREMY PRUITT?!)
Returners: Can we just take over on downs all game?
LOL. Alabama has orange traffic cones that return kicks for 20 yards, and then a series of guys that terrify you when a punt is in the air. For whatever reason, Alabama stuck with the scariest one of all — Trevon Diggs — for most of 2017. Although, after finally seeing enough muff, Saban did the obvious thing and put Xavian Marks back there later in the season...then went back to Diggs :\
Literally any guesses we make here would be throwing a dart then painting a circle around it. And, don’t expect these questions to be answered by A-Day, or even Labor Day. I suspect we’ll know the Alabama returners by Halloween. For all the talk of Saban’s mercurial temper, that he hasn’t had a stroke during a punt return the last two years is amazing.