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Alabama 2020 Football Unit Previews: The Return Game

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A/K/A The part of the Special Teams we love

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Citrus Bowl - Michigan v Alabama Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

ED. Note: Keilan Robinson is sitting out this season, which we overlooked. This has been adjusted accordingly.

I’ll be breaking down the special teams into two parts so as not to overwhelm you with a wall of text. Today, I’ll let you back into those special teams units by tackling the part that we love — the returners.

The good news to report is that there’s practically nothing but good news to report.

Reviewing 2019

The good news:
Alabama’s return teams housed four kicks last year for scores. Of course, two of those were by way of the same man (Jaylen Waddle), and the other two (Ale Kaho and Tyrell Shavers) came off of blocked kicks.

That said, the actual return stats aren’t too shabby. Alabama led the nation in punt return average, at 24.15 yards per kick, and outpaced everyone in the country by almost 200 total return yards there. But, the kick return game was just solid, if unremarkable — just 21.25 yards per return and 56th in the country. “Playmakers Needed” surely hangs a sign under the goal posts in Bryant Denny.

Waddle, of course, was the beast of the bunch: he returned 20 punts for almost 500 yards, had a score, and posted a ridiculous 23.5 YPR average, where he led the country. He also played alongside chief KR, Henry Ruggs III, and netted 35 yards per return, and threw in another touchdown...just because.

Fortunately, we have him for one more year.

The bad news:
The loss of Ruggs removes another burner from the kick return game. Teams had to pick their poison — do you kick to the Tide’s fastest player or the most dangerous man in the country? More often than not, teams chose Ruggs. But, he was not chopped liver, finishing in the nation’s Top 30 in YPK, at 24 yards-per. Alongside Ruggs or Waddle, the Tide also ran Trevon Diggs out on the field, and he posted a solid-but-not spectacular 20-ish yards per kick.

With their loss, however, there’s little proven talent back there to line up alongside Waddle — and that assumes Waddle even returns kicks. Brian Robinson saw a little action, but averaged a meager 8.38 yards per return. The Tide also tried Keilan Robinson in limited action.

2020 Preview:

Punt Returner:
This will be the shortest preview you ever read.

Jaylen Waddle will, health permitting, return every punt that Alabama fields this year. Should he get nicked up, or need a breather from running 80 yards with all of those sweet 7-yard, wobbly Mac Jones passes thrown slightly behind him, then I would almost certainly expect to see a DB out there — a Nick Saban specialty. One name to perhaps watch is Marcus Banks. While he saw limited action in 2019, he’s the fleetest of the corners. It is a position that requires soft hands, elite speed, good instincts, open field moves, and fearlessness. Banks’ top-end speed means he is almost certainly getting a few looks.

Gunner/Specialist:
The Tide does lose Trevon Diggs manning one gunner spot, and Tyrell Shavers was quite competent on the outside last year. But do-it-all special teams monster Ale Kaho returns. There’s no dearth of speed to run down plays on this team, and the entering recruiting class is also filled with freakish athletes like Will Anderson, who will almost certainly see time on kick and punt units. As is usually the case at Alabama, a player will emerge that we don’t see coming, much less one we can predict nine days out from ‘Bama’s first game.

Alabama was 5th in the nation last season in opponent’s kick returns, giving up a very stingy 16.79-per kick. It will need to improve in punt return coverage, however. The Tide was just 89th in punt coverage, and allowed over 9 yards per return.

Kick Returner:
Can Jaylen Waddle be asked to be WR2, return punts and kicks? You don’t want to risk more snaps than you must with Alabama’s most dominant playmaker, but it’s hard to see how you keep him off the field either. He’s been very healthy throughout his career. His speed and elusiveness makes it very hard to get a solid shot on him.

I would expect, if only to pressure opposing teams into strategizing around the kicking game, that Waddle will at least be on the field — but you can’t see many teams actually kicking to him. Far more likely is that the ball goes out of bounds from an execution error. And that’s just fine. If Alabama starts on the 35, that’s great field position without ever even touching the ball. And that’s what Waddle’s presence can provide.

The question of who assumes KR2 duties is, however, an open one. Just as Nick Saban has preferred to place a defensive back on the punt team, he also liked to pair a running back alongside his primary kick returner. Their ability to hang on to the ball and take vicious shots is a definite asset when 11 men are howling at full-speed with a 40-yard head start. Given what we know of the past units, I would almost certainly expect to see one of the faster backs playing alongside Waddle.

Keilan Robinson may would have fit the bill here. BRob is simply too slow, and he was far too ineffective in that role last season. But K-Rob saw action back there in 8 games, and had a nice 22-yard average on his kick return attempt. He has the speed, the experience, and running back is a position of depth for the Tide. These Freshmen backs do not appear to have the elite top-end speed as yet, or at least they did not upon graduation.

Nick Saban verifies recruits’ measurables upon graduation, and Jase McClellan (4.57) and Kyle Edwards (4.55) have good speed, but not elite speed. Then again, that never stopped Alabama from suiting up Josh Jacobs and BJ Emmons. Coming off an injury, and expected to shoulder a goodly number of carries as RB2, Trey Sanders is out of the question in the return game. Or, at least I hope he is. The Franchise can’t afford to get banged up playing the field position war.

That leaves the head-turning Roydell Williams as an intriguing possibility. Williams was a two-time All-State selection and the No. 9 running back in his class. Besides his gaudy ground stats, Roydell was lethal in the passing game. He has been compared to Josh Jacobs in several respects; notably his violence, open-field moves, soft hands and a top-end that is better than McClellan and Edwards (4.50). It will be hard to keep Williams off the field in some capacity, so I will put him as my dark horse returner.

Another player to potentially watch is DeVonta Smith. Alabama has paired two wide receivers at kick returner before, usually a burner along side a more rugged possession player. Smith plays a lot stronger and bigger than he is. He has elite speed and hands, and he can create plays when given some space. For that reason, also look for him as a possible alternate in the punt return game. Given his experience, and his top-end, he’d be my leader out of the gate.

2020 Projected Starters (backups in parentheses):

KR: Jaylen Waddle / DeVonta Smith (Roydell Williams)
PR: Jaylen Waddle (Marcus Banks / DeVonta Smith)