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SUPERLATIVES: 2021 Alabama Crimson Tide Football Report Card — Special Teams

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It was an inconsistent season for the least-discussed part of the game

<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Cincinnati v Alabama

Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

We have a running joke here — more gallows humor than anything — that Alabama is fundamentally incapable fielding an across-the-board elite special teams unit. When the kicking game excels, the punting is in the toilet; when the Tide fields an all-world return game, the field goal kicking may as well be a game of chance.

Search your heart: you know it to be true.

I wish we were monkeying around, but we regret to inform you that 2021 brought more of the same, following the departure of Mr. Pole Assassin Jeff Banks to Texas to join Steve Sarkisian’s staff. Alabama hired in his place one of the nation’s excellent young coaches, Drew Svoboda, who had led Memphis’s outstanding special teams units. (To the role of STC, Svoboda was also tasked with coaching the tight ends. Yikes, talk about being set up to fail.)

So, what were the results this season? Let’s break it down:

Kicking: A-

Alabama’s field goal kicking was a statistically middle-of-the-road 63rd this season, and Will Reichard individually finished just 73rd, connecting on 22-of-28 (78.6%) with 71 of 72 XPA going through the uprights. He almost matched a career long, with a 51-yarder, and didn’t miss any gimmes under 30 yards.

But the above requires a far more granular look to see how we arrive at an A-.

Why was his kick % so low, after not missing a single kick last season?

Well, the first thing is that Will kicked more this season than his previous two years combined, and had double his attempts this season over last season (28 vs. 14). The second thing to note is that Reichard had far more difficult kicks this year. Last season, over 1/3rd of his attempts were inside 30 yards. He only was asked to kick 9 times from 30 yards or beyond. This season, Will had a taller task: 13 of his 28 attempts were at least 40 yards or longer. And, even then, he managed to put 8 of 12 through the uprights (and had a notable block by UGA). He was tied for 3rd in the nation for the most FGA this year, but had by far the most number of harder kicks (beyond 40 yards)

The median FG accuracy of major-college kickers from 40-44 yards is 62.6%; from 45-49, that drops to 59%. And from 50-54 yards, Power 5 kickers hit just 42% of their attempts. Will exceeded every last one of those. He is an above-average, reliable Power 5 kicker who was called on a whole lot this season and did a good job.

He put 59% of his kicks into the endzone, and had just 4 OOB on 106 attempts. For a team, Alabama forced a touchback on 64.27% of their 111 total KOs. Only Georgia had a higher TB-force rate among teams with at least 90 KOs. This was an excellent group, and also helps to explain why Alabama was among the nation’s best in opponent starting field position (25.91 yard line).

Taken as a whole, the kicking game was beyond a reliable unit for the Tide; it was a legitimate weapon.

Poll

Grade the Alabama FG Kicking Game

This poll is closed

  • 12%
    A+
    (31 votes)
  • 71%
    A/A-
    (181 votes)
  • 15%
    B+
    (39 votes)
  • 0%
    B/B-
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    C-ish
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Below a C
    (0 votes)
253 votes total Vote Now

Kick Returns: A+

The problem with having as much world-class speed as the Crimson Tide is that returners just didn’t get very much action. Alabama opponents put the ball either in the endzone or OOB on almost 60% of their attempts. That left Alabama with just 27 opportunities to return KOs, among the lowest in the country. And among Playoff teams that was second only to UGA’s 20 chances.

But, when the Tide got a seam, they were a good return team, netting 24 yard per return (22nd in the nation), and finishing T-2nd in KR TDs (2). The issue was getting some looks back there. Between Alabama’s defense holding teams out of the endzone, and opponents kicking out of bounds, ‘Bama only got 1.3 return attempts a game. That is just 112th in the nation, and was second among playoff teams, behind UGA’s 1.1 return opportunities per game. The Crimson Tide also had the best return average of any team in the Playoffs.

How does that all translate when put together? It means that Alabama had the nation’s best touchdown-to-return opportunity rate in the country, with Oklahoma State just behind them.

This was an excellent group.

Poll

Grade the Alabama KR Game

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    A+
    (75 votes)
  • 40%
    A/A-
    (80 votes)
  • 14%
    B+
    (28 votes)
  • 4%
    B/B-
    (9 votes)
  • 3%
    C-ish
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    Below a C
    (0 votes)
199 votes total Vote Now
<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">Playoff Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Cincinnati v Alabama

Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Punt Returns: D-

Talk about feast or famine here, boys.

Despite being 4th in the country in return chances per game (2.3), the Tide was only able to generate 18.1 YPG in field position off those punts (27th).

Why? A very mediocre return game that either hit it out of the park or waffled around for a piddly few yards. In fact, Alabama averaged a miserly 8.0 YPR, by far the worst of any playoff team, and “good” for just 65th in the nation. At the same time, Alabama was also T-2nd in the country in punts returned for scores (2).

And the better the team was, the worse that Alabama performed.

The return game positively feasted on bad teams, where it averaged almost 22 YPR and scored twice. But against ranked teams? The Tide lost yards. It averaged an insane -1.25 YPR against ranked teams: this was the lowest number in the nation by a team with a winning record.

I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a team average negative yards throughout an entire-ass season.

And now with JaMo’s Olympian speed off to the NFL’s greener pastures, there is no Plan B. None whatsoever. Alabama desparately needs someone to step up and claim this job next season...and maybe try to at least not lose yards against competent teams for an entire year?

The only reason this unit did not earn a failing grade is because of JaMo and because Alabama at least committed no turnovers in the punt return game. If either of those factors changed, this unit would get an F. I’ve seen bad Alabama punt return teams in my life. I’ve never seen one this bad, this consistently bad, disguised by a few big plays against unranked teams.

Poll

Grade the Alabama PR Game

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    A-ish
    (4 votes)
  • 4%
    B-ish
    (8 votes)
  • 27%
    C-ish
    (55 votes)
  • 37%
    D-ish
    (74 votes)
  • 28%
    Big Fat F
    (56 votes)
197 votes total Vote Now

Punt Return Coverage: A+

The Tide did not give up a score; hell, Alabama didn’t give up single return that even neared 20 yards. Literally none. The longest of the season? 12 yards.

In fact, Alabama surrendered less than one return per game, period (.9), and teams gained a grand damn total of 5.7 yards per game on Alabama’s punt teams. Against ranked teams they were even better, surrendering just .6 attempts per game and allowing just 3.6 yards of field position all game, per game.

Not sure what else you could ask for here. Just a great job of leveraging elite speed in space and coaching some sure tackling. This may have been the best ‘Bama special teams unit. In fact, statistically it is the best punt coverage unit you’ve seen from Alabama over the last decade.

Boom MFer. Take a bow.

Poll

Grade the Alabama Punt Coverage Team

This poll is closed

  • 75%
    A+
    (139 votes)
  • 21%
    A/A-
    (40 votes)
  • 3%
    I’m a troll
    (6 votes)
185 votes total Vote Now

Kick Coverage: B

Want the good news first? Alabama gave up just 3 explosive returns of 20 yards or more all season. Want the bad news? One of them was over 90 yards, went for a touchdown, and was the deciding score in Alabama’s road loss to Texas A&M. WOMP WOMP.

The Tide was a very competent-if-not-stellar 36th overall in kick coverage, despite the explosive plays (18.46 YPR), and 32nd in yards allowed per game to return units (30.3). It also limited the number of shots that teams were able to take, putting 60% through the back of the endzone, and only giving up 1.6 returns per game (35th). Using just ranked teams? 30.4 yards allowed per game, and 1.8 return chances.

See the picture here?

What emerges is the portrait of a consistent top-third sort of unit, but not an elite one. That said, neither was it as bad as it it seemed at times either. A few longer returns really colored the perception of a group that was still well above-average on the whole.

Poll

Grade the Alabama Kick Coverage Team

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    A+
    (3 votes)
  • 20%
    A/A-
    (36 votes)
  • 32%
    B+
    (57 votes)
  • 27%
    B/B-
    (48 votes)
  • 14%
    C-ish
    (25 votes)
  • 2%
    Below a C
    (5 votes)
174 votes total Vote Now
<p zoompage-fontsize="15" style="">COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 04 SEC Championship Game - Georgia v Alabama

Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Punting: F

This seems to be the especially cursed unit, following the departure of JK Scott to the NFL. The Tide’s parade of 38-yard averages, 11-yard shanks, and dejected preferred walk-ons dance across the back of my mind’s eye like the scent of lovers lost.

BUT, Alabama finally got one of those Aussies. So, surely it improved right?

The answer is a decided “nope.” I think we got a stealth Kiwi masquerading an Australian.

Once again, ‘Bama found itself at the bottom of the conference in net punting (38.33 YPA) — 124th in the nation. The Tide hit just 38.00 YPA against fellow SEC teams, and “improved” to 106th when it played ranked opponents — at 40.1 YPA.

Alabama largely eliminated the shanks that it had seen the past few seasons, but these results were not solely the product of hang-time. They were just bad punts. Know why the punt coverage team is so good? Because they had to be.

It’s hard to justify grading this above an F, so I won’t.

Poll

Grade Alabama’s "punting"

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    A-ish / I’m a troll
    (4 votes)
  • 1%
    B-ish / I’m a troll
    (2 votes)
  • 10%
    C-ish / I MAY be a troll
    (20 votes)
  • 42%
    D-ish
    (81 votes)
  • 44%
    An F fatter than a tick at a blood bank
    (85 votes)
192 votes total Vote Now

Coaching: Incomplete

I know, I know. This is kind of a cop-out. I graded everyone else. But, follow me for a second.

In areas where the coaching mattered, particularly on return coverage, Alabama did very well. In areas where there may simply not be the reliable talent (punting, for a start; and punt returners are notoriously hard to come by), it is hard to evaluate.

The punt cover team was outstanding. The kick coverage team was well above average. Will Reichard, given his attempts, was well above average. But punting and punt returns were simply disastrous. That seems to hint more to a personnel issue than one of coaching.

With such a young team and a new coaching scheme, Alabama fans simply did not know what they have on-hand, and it makes evaluating Svoboda’s 2021 overall very difficult. To me? It looks like personnel. But I will reserve judgment for one more season before I make the call on him.

Gun to my head? A solid B though.

Poll

Grade Drew Svoboda’s ST Coaching

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    A-ish
    (11 votes)
  • 55%
    B-ish
    (95 votes)
  • 31%
    C-ish
    (54 votes)
  • 6%
    Below a C
    (12 votes)
172 votes total Vote Now

Overall Grade? B-

As usual, Alabama’s special teams did some things very, very well. And they did many things quite competently. But, when they were bad, they were really, really bad.

There’s the rub, isn’t? It’s hard to have a complete team when you can’t field a complete special teams unit. And it has been many moons — if at all — since a Nick Saban squad has done so.

Let’s spin the roulette wheel and see which phase of the game falls apart next season (because you know it will. It’s an Alabama thing).

Poll

Overall Special Teams Grade

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    A+/A
    (3 votes)
  • 19%
    A-/B+
    (33 votes)
  • 56%
    B/B-
    (95 votes)
  • 20%
    C-ish
    (35 votes)
  • 1%
    D-ish or lower
    (2 votes)
168 votes total Vote Now

See you next week when I give out another report card. I haven’t decided which unit though, so leave your suggestions below. Otherwise, it will be something boring like safeties.