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2021 Alabama Crimson Tide Football Preview: Special Teams

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Several key position battles remain to be sorted out.

CFP National Championship Presented by AT&T - Ohio State v Alabama Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Departed:

It’s going to be tough to replace two of the nation’s most dangerous return men (Devonta Smith, Jaylen Waddle), and a three-year starter at long snapper.

Let’s begin with Thomas Fletcher, a two-time Rubio All-American and the winner of the 2020 Mannelly Award given to the nation’s top snapper. Alabama has produced an unbroken string of quality long snappers dating back over a decade, all the way back to Carson Tinker. But Fletcher may be the finest of the bunch. Like his predecessor, Cole Mazza, Fletcher did not have a single missnap in his career, but he was so much faster getting the ball in play and then getting his head up on the play. He had good size for the position without impacting his hustle or physicality. That steadiness and size (6’1”, 235) is probably why the Panthers took the almost-unheard of step of selecting Fletcher in the 6th round of the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s going to be hard to replace him.

Returners may have even bigger shoes to fill. Jaylen Waddle was hands-down one of the nation’s most dangerous return men in his time at the Capstone. In 2018 he was 2nd in the SEC in return yards. In 2019, he topped himself, and was first in both the SEC and the NCAA. The latter season, he averaged almost 25 yards per punt return. And he leaves campus being the 9th-most effective punt returner in history. He only housed two kicks in his three years, but Waddle was a game changer. When he went down, the Alabama offense lost a threat in two phases of the game.

Or so we thought.

When Waddle sat with injury, Alabama brought in the Heisman winner to field kicks (think about how ridiculous that sentence is again). And all Smitty did was average an unreal 21.3 yards per punt return, which was almost three yards more than Jaylen Waddle did in 2018. He also took one to the house, quieting doubters about the wisdom of him returning kicks and providing a little icing on his Heisman cake.

With the punters, it becomes even more difficult to know who is actually gone and who is actually returning. For the third straight season, punters have been appearing and disappearing on the Alabama roster sheet. Most recently it has been Ty Perine who has been off and on the roster. But, the one thing we know for sure is that AFA transfer Charlie Scott is not returning after an underwhelming grad transfer season.

Incoming Position Battles:

Long Snapper

The position battle for long snapper comes down to two true freshmen — Carter Short and Kneeland Hibbett. But don’t panic, Gumps. That is a position where Saban has often started the babes. It is not coincidentally also one where raw size doesn’t matter nearly as much: Conditioning is much more important than bulk here.

Hibbett is a preferred walkon from Flo-Town, and has custom-bult size for the position. He’s almost a Fletcher clone in that respect. The 6’2”, 235 frosh only ever had really had one school to choose from, if we’re being honest. He’s Gump royalty, being the grandson of Bear-era great Dennis Homan.

His competitor is Carter Short, is out of the once-proud Hoover Bucs program. And like so many of those guys, is a lot leaner than you’d like for immediate playing time. At just 5’10”, 190, there are many plates of ribs and mashed potato sandwiches in his future. Despite his size, he may actually be the more polished of the two players. But, man, fielding a long snapper that’s under 200 pounds in the SEC is a tall order. And fellow walkon Freshman Kade Wehby is even smaller — just 185 pounds at 5’9”. Woof.

So, we’ll give a tentative nod to Hibbett for now — plus his name is Kneeland, and that’s too much awesome synergy. But expect a much more spirited camp in 2022 after Short gets another year of conditioning and size under his belt. Though if Hibbett struggles, an Alabama offense that isn’t nearly as reliant on the kicking game as many teams may take a flyer on the aptly-named Short, undersized or not.

Projected Starter: Kneeland Hibbett with a large asterisk. Better size, better long-term upside.

Placekicker

LOL. Just kidding. We’re set here.

Will Reichard, the winner of our 2020 Midseason Big Dick Energy Award was perfect last season. And we mean that: Literally perfect. Didn’t miss an extra point, didn’t miss a field goal, only put two balls out of bounds, and when he wanted to, he was easily capable of burying them in the endzone (20.9% touchback rate.) He was robbed of a Lou Groza Award as a finalist last season, and is once again on the preseason watch list for the Groza.

Lost in Will Reichard’s excellence, is that Alabama often brought on now-Sophomore Chase Allen to kick deep as well. Allen actually took about 40% of the KO attempts, had an even better percentage of balls kept in play, and an even better touchback percentage than Reichard.

Expect that platooning to continue. The most stressful kick on the field occurs on change of positions, and Reichard staying healthy has meant the world to the Tide offense and to our collective cardiac health.

Punter

Of all the exciting players brought into the 2020-2021 NSD class, it may wind up being the freshman Aussie punter James Burnip is one of the biggest immediate contributors.

Last season, Sam Johnson struggled in his limited appearances, posting a miserable 35.4 yards per kick. Ty Perine was mysteriously absent all of last season, and no one has ever really explained why. He was the best returning option for the Tide entering 2020, after earning the starting job in the stretch run of 2019. In those final six games, Perine posted a net of 44.3 yards per return. Not otherworldy, no. But good enough to get the job done.

Perine has returned this season, but you suspect that after spending a precious scholarship on a punter (and Alabama was in the Bottom 5 of punts attempted last season), that Burnip is going to win this job just by showing up.

The 6’6” Aussie is of course a rugby-style punter, but he has been very good in practice (though he has struggled with his consistency). Burnip has no experience in organized football, so the competition is still ongoing. I expect to see Perine and Burnip both get game reps — and as Burnip adjusts to the steep learning curve, he’ll grab the starting job down the stretch. If not sooner: Burnip has been the better player in the Tide’s scrimmages.

Projected Starter: James Burnip, after a few weeks of competition.

Return Game:

We have been high on the speedy, slick JoJo Earle since he committed to the Tide. The comparisons to Jaylen Waddle are not only inevitable, they are deserved — in stature (5’10, 170), in speed, in elusiveness, in versatility. He is a threat to go the distance from any position on the field, on any given snap. He will get a lot of looks on the outside, from slot, and particularly (and immediately) at punt returner.

He’s as icy back there as he is dangerous, and Earle pretty much locked down the PR job since the day he donned a white practice uniform.

Kick returner is a bit more of a moving target. We all know that Saban has traditionally paired a hands-WR with a running back. Though we have seen some goofy combinations before, like TE Jahleel Billingsley returning far too many kick returns. This year appears to be more of the 2018-2019 Tide approach than last year’s aberrant and think KR teams. Not only has Earle gotten looks at one spot, but stud-in-waiting Trey Sanders has seen plenty of snaps in the return game as well, and by all accounts has impressed.

A healthy Sanders is simply too good to keep off the field, and even though he’s likely cemented in as RB2 for now, I expect to see him earn at least on of these spots. We’ll go ahead and say that the Tide replicates its longstanding RB/WR model, and 2021 looks quite similar to the Damien Harris/Jaylen Waddle tandem.

Projected Starters: JoJoEarle, Trey Sanders