On January 8th, 2018, freshman DeVonta Smith caught a game-winning overtime touchdown from freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa to win a national championship game over the Georgia Bulldogs. The freshman offensive explosion rightfully got all of the hype and press after the game, but lost in the mix was J.K. Scott.
The senior punter and annual Ray Guy award snub booted 6 punts for nearly 48 yards each, only allowing two non-consequential returns from Mecole Hardman, who’s now carved a role as one of the most explosive players in the NFL. It was a phenomenal showing on the biggest stage when the Alabama defense needed every yard to stall long enough for the offense to mount their historic comeback.
As Alabama fans, we should have appreciated that more.
Scott was drafted in the 5th round by the Green Bay Packers, and he took his 4+ years of nearly 46 yards per punt with him.
Scholarship freshman Skyler DeLong was the heir apparent, but 34 yards per punt and a high percentage of shanks saw him benched for walk-on Mike Bernier, who hovered a little below 40 yards/punt, but was consistent and generally got decent hangtime.
For some reason, he more or less disappeared for all of 2019, only to show up for the season finale bowl game and punt 6 times for for and average of 42 yards. Nick Saban never really addressed the absence, but, man, sure would have been nice to have him DURING the season.
Anyway, 2019 was an abject disaster punting the ball. DeLong returned, only to do even worse than he did in his freshman season. Turns out you can sophomore slump even from rock bottom. Walk-on Ty Perine took over midway through the season and booted some awe-inspiring 50+ yarders, drawing the attention of fans and media as he also made news for apparently being able to keep up with many skill position guys in speed drills at practice.
Unfortunately, Perine fumbled a critical snap in a loss to LSU. Combine that with his 50/50 shot of either blasting a 55 yarder or shanking one out of bounds on any given punt, and he found himself on the outside looking in the following offseason.
In 2020, Saban turned to freshman walk-on Sam Johnson, who proceeded to punt just about as well as DeLong did the previous two years. He wound up benched in favor of Air Force transfer Charlie Scott, who averaged a solid-if-uninspiring 39 yards/punt. To his credit, he had a couple of brilliant punts that pinned Florida in their endzone in the SEC Championship shootout.
Anyway, Scott was a one-year rental, and Alabama rolled into the 2021 offseason with Sam Johnson and Ty Perine still on the roster.
Look, punting has become less and less important as offenses are getting better and better at scoring from any distance in college football. In 2018-2020 (the beginning of the Tua era), Alabama averaged 35 punts per season. In the four years prior, Alabama maxed out at 70 and never punted less than 54 times in a season.
Nobody wants to punt. Willingly giving the ball back to the other team? It’s just wrong. And I’ll even listen to arguments about always going for it on 4th down. There’s a lot of data out there that points to NFL and college coaches being WAAAYYY too conservative (although, I have my suspicions that if everyone started going for it on 4th down in normal situations, defenses would get better at defending it... But that’s another article for another time).
Sometimes, though, you just gotta punt.
And when you do, a fumbled snap or 20-yard shank in the wrong moment can be absolutely disastrous.
So, with all the resources of the best program in college football, Nick Saban went shopping for the Tide a new in-case-of-emergency weapon.
In comes Jack Martin, a junior from just down the state in Troy. Martin was a skinny soccer player in high school that averaged a nice 42 yards per punt and got a few scholarship offers from Troy, South Alabama, and a couple of other colleges to be their punter and kicker.
Martin took over kickoff duties as a true freshman, and added 40 pounds to his frame over the year. In 2020, he took over punting for the Trojans as well and was absolutely phenomenal. He averaged 46 yards per punt on 25 attempts that season, 13 of which were downed inside the 20, and 8 of them travelled further than 50 yards.
I watched about half of his punts from last season to get an idea of what Alabama can expect from the transfer. Martin is a versatile punter who has a number of different types of punts in his arsenal. On standard full-length punts, he can pretty consistently get about 56 air yards on about 4.1-4.2 seconds of hang time (for reference, the NFL average is 4.4 seconds). He does tend to waste a couple of steps before punting on the straight-up kicks, though, so he lines up 14 yards behind the line of scrimmage to make up for the extra time, which means the actual net yard on the punt will be closer to 42.
The best I saw was a 55 yarder with 4.8 seconds as the hang time. Do that a few times at Alabama and he’ll find himself getting drafted.
In the 14 punts I watched, only one went short when he clearly intended more distance on it, and even it wasn’t a shank out of bounds... he just didn’t get a lot of leg behind it.
However, it was his other types of punts that really caught my eye. Martin has a wide, rounded kicking motion that gives all of his punts a strong dose of top-spin on a near spiral that will send grounded balls shooting off 15 yards downfield if the return man isn’t able to get on it.
He’ll occasionally change up his motion and do a semi-rugby style that he can get off his foot and gone with only a couple of steps, giving defenders almost no chance of blocking it. And when he does, he’s phenomenal at placing it about 7 yards short of the return man with enough juice on it to scare them from trying to field it. He rattled off a couple of 60 yarders that way.
Finally, he’s also adept with directional sky kicks. He placed a couple of short kicks right on the out of bounds line with a 4.5+ second hang time to pin the other team deep.
With DeLong and Perine, though, Saban had already been down the road of having promising punters not quite produce in crunch time. So putting all of his eggs in Martin’s basket just wasn’t quite enough.
A week ago, a lanky, 6’6” guy out of Australia named James Burnip committed to play for Alabama. Originally set to enroll at Ole Miss in 2022 and play for 3 years, Burnip was able to get eligible for the Tide for the start of the 2021 season and be ready to go from day one. Burnip has never played an organized game of American football, but he has been training with ProKick Australia, the program that’s produced a huge chunk of NCAA and NFL kickers over the years, including 2017 Ray Guy award winner and NFL All-Pro Michael Dickson, who’s now the the second highest paid punter in the world.
There’s no film or no stats out there from Burnip, so he’s a total wild-card. But Australia has a staggeringly high success rate of getting punters into American football, so there’s good reason for optimism there as well.
With the Tide looking to break in a new offensive coordinator, new running running backs, new WRs, and a new QB, there’s bound to be some hiccups in the offense in 2021, especially compared to the last three seasons with unparalleled levels of offensive efficiency.
And with that comes even more reliance on the defense and special teams to create a little bit of a buffer for the new offense to grow. If the Tide can field a punter who’s not only not a liability, but can even create disadvantageous situations for the opposing team, it would be huge.
With Martin, Alabama has an experienced FBS punter with decent power and amazing placement and ball spins. With Burnip, they have a 4-year guy who has unlimited potential and absolutely 0 experience in American football. Sounds like a great long-term plan for consistency, followed by potential greatness. Low-risk, high-reward. And that’s something I’m a fan of.