At Alabama, special teams really have been quite... well... special. Ever since Leigh Tiffin’s final season season in 2009, Alabama has really only had one year with field goal kicking that wasn’t absolutely nerve-wracking: Adam Griffith’s senior season in 2016— and that was only a 75%.
2010 actually wasn’t too bad either. Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster combined for respectable numbers, though they didn’t really attempt too many long or high-pressure kicks. 2011, though, was when it all fell apart. The 9-6 overtime loss to LSU after Foster missed 3 field goals and Shelley missed another led to death threats to Foster from rabid fans. He wound up at 22% on the season and Shelley only hit 77%, despite not attempting anything longer than about 35 yards.
Foster doubled his field goal accuracy in 2012, up to an outstanding 44%. Fortunately, Alabama’s offense scored a whole lot of TDs that year, and only attempted 20 field goals the whole season.
2013 saw a senior Foster build up a shaky confidence as he hit 12-17 field goals, but he fell apart again in the Iron Bowl, leading to true freshman Adam Griffith being thrown in with one second left to hit a 56-yard game winner. He didn’t.
Griffith then was the kicker for 3 years. He improved, slowly, but struggled with back spasms and low confidence. Again, his senior season was a solid year, and really the only time since that fateful LSU game in 2011 that Alabama fans weren’t absolutely terrified of the field goal unit.
2017 saw grad transfer Andy Pappanastos go only 18/25 on the season. He was actually pretty solid after missing two in the season opener, but then missed two chip shots (including a would-be game winner) in the national championship against Georgia.
2018 was a little better as Joseph Bulovas hit 14/18, but he also just was never given the opportunity to kick any real important kicks. On the other hand, though, he missed 6 extra points. SIX. And on top of that, grad transfer Austin Jones (once a highly thought of kicker at Temple) missed 3 extra points and field goal in the first two game, leading to Bulovas getting to kick the rest of the season in the first place.
Well, that was a long intro just to say that Alabama has had some real struggles in the kicking game. The Tide’s punting has been mostly solid and sometimes spectacular over that range, and the return teams have had some really good players (and a couple of seasons not so good). Of the 2018 team, only Austin Jones has moved on.
Joseph Bulovas is the front-runner. He was a solid field goal kicker in his redshirt freshman season, despite his odd proclivity for missing extra points. By all accounts he’s done really well this offseason, and should be the guy this season as long as he doesn’t have a patented Alabama Kicker Mental Breakdown.
On his heels, though, is true freshman Will Reichard. The specialist out of Hoover was the top kicker recruit in the nation, and has the attitude to be a great one. He’s apparently been absolutely phenomenal all spring and summer, so if Bulovas slips up once, the fans will be calling for the freshman.
Skyler DeLong was thought to be the heir apparent to JK Scott, but DeLong quite obviously let his nerves get the best of him as a true freshman. After shanking his way to only 34 yards per punt in the first 3rd of the season, he was benched for walk on Mike Bernier, who was slightly better and at least didn’t really shank anything.
Now, though, DeLong seems to have gotten his confidence. He was out there booming 60-yarders at A-Day, and has taken the job by the horns this summer. Expect the sophomore to be the starter this season.
Mike Bernier has graduated, come back, disappeared from the roster, reappeared, disappeared, and is now with the team again. I suppose he will be with the team this season. It seems he’s solidly behind DeLong, though.
There’s also Reichard again. The freshman is not only a kicker, but a top-notch punter as well. He probably won’t unseat DeLong, but expect him to solidly be the second-team punter.
Alabama didn’t really settle down on a single guy as a kick returner last year. Josh Jacobs had a couple of good returns, but has moved on to the NFL. Henry Ruggs III and Brian Robinson were also back there quite often. Najee Harris, Chadarius Townsend, Jerome Ford, and Eddie Smith have all also been sighted practicing there.
There’s also Trevon Diggs who started at punt returner for a couple of years and Jaylen Waddle, the electric punt returner in 2018. They haven’t really been in the mix at kick returns before, but that could always change.
Waddle will most likely resume his role as punt returner, where he will try to build on his exciting freshman year. Diggs, Townsend, and wide receiver Xavier Williams look to be his most likely backups.
Then there is preferred walk-on freshman Eric Poellnitz. The tiny specialist from Mobile Christian was absoluty dynamic in high school, and was brought onto the team solely as a return man. He may not be a factor, but don’t be surprised if you see a diminutive #38 appear to catch a punt in a blowout.
3rd-year starter Thomas Fletcher returns for his junior season. I’ve never heard anything bad about him, which is the best compliment a long-snapper can get.
With Bulovas and DeLong seemingly much improved over their inaugural campaigns and Will Reichard pushing both of them to improve or get benched, the kicking game is looking up (Of course, that remains to be seen when LSU has the Tide down to a 3-point game in the 4th quarter). Jaylen Waddle should dominate as punt returner, and the Tide has plenty of options with both experience and talent as kick returners.
This should SHOULD be a solid special teams unit in 2019.