Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: But the 2021 Alabama Crimson Tide Special Teams did most things pretty well, were excellent in a few, and absolutely putrid on the field in a few aspects.
Whatever Faustian pact Nick Saban made with Ole’ Scratch in exchange for a 15-year dynasty almost certainly involved forfeiting an entire third of the game.
We have already delved into the offensive line, and soon shall come to the receivers and pass defense, but in today’s parade of horribles we’ll tackle the special teams (And hopefully we’ll tackle it better than Alabama did on the road in College Station.)
It only hurts if you believe things will be better this time. I don’t, so it doesn’t.
In overall special teams efficiency (returns, return coverage, blocks, kicks, punts), Alabama was about as average as average gets — 64th out of 130 teams. Forget about getting graded on the curve: Alabama was the curve, and there were a few culprits for that.
The first area was the kickoff returns. Alabama was a pedestrian 60th in the nation in adjusted efficiency, and the raw numbers and splits are far worse, but very telling. Alabama was 22nd in the nation in KRA — 24.00 per. But, the Tide only netted 31 yards per game in KR yards (94th): And in 11 of Alabama’s 15 games, it hit 31 yards or lower: it was a hit or miss unit that relied on big plays from one man, and one man only.
Jameson Williams was the return game. He took 10 of Alabama’s 19 kick returns, averaged over 35 yards per touch, and netted two scores. The other 9 kicks were fielded by five separate players (primarily No. 18). And, aside from Billboard’s one return for 17 yards, not a single player hit above 13.0 yards per return. If you wanted to bury Alabama deep, you kicked to Slade Bolden — and teams did.
I’m not sure if this was coaching or personnel, but it must be corrected. Not every player has to be a breakout threat, but the median KR average in college football last season was 20.4 yards per attempt — the Tide were awful, outside of JaMo.
Punt returns were scarce better. In many ways, they were worse. In 10 of Alabama’s games, the Tide would finish with 10 yards or fewer. It was ranked 65th in KRA only because Jamo had 117 yards against Mercer and 71 against New Mexico State. Every other return netted a total of 83 yards — on 22 attempts. Non-Williams returns placed Alabama 118th in the country: the only Big 5 teams that were worse were Nebraska (3-9) and Georgia Tech (3-9). Overall, Alabama would finish with the 74th overall punt return efficiency, despite being second in the country in TDs (2), and having the nation’s leading punt return man...by 16 yards.
The Rest: D+
Overall Return Game: C-
Kicking / Kick Coverage Game:
In the 2020 season, Will Reichard was perfect — literally perfect. So, anything short of perfection was going to be a step back. At best, he would be stagnating. And, with a far flakier offense in front of him in 2021, Will was called on for a lot more work.
Reichard had just 14 kicks (and only one kick over 40 yards), in 2020. In 2021, his workload doubled — to 29 total attempts, and they were not easy ones either. In fact, Reichard had 13 kick attempts over 40 yards — fully one-third were between 40-49 yards. Despite the constant long attempts, Will was a very consistent college kicker, hitting almost 80% on the season, going 1/2 on FGA over 50 yards and 7/11 on kicks 40-49.
Not automatic, no. But, 70% on long kicks, dragging the average down to 80%, is about all you can ask for at this level. He is a very good college kicker.
In the field position war, touchback percentage was fairly pedestrian nationally too (55%, 45th). But that’s not concerning. Alabama’s scheme is one that kicks to the line and which induces returns (more on that later). In fact, he was much better in that regard, boosting his touchback rate by almost 25% over 2020 — and over 34% from his Freshman season. It was by far the best TB% that Alabama has had since the rule change — only 2017’s 45% was close.
This dovetails into Alabama’s KR coverage, which was generally good. The Tide blocked three total kicks on the year (19th, 3rd in SEC). Yet, like so many metrics for special teams, it was feast or famine in the kick coverage game. Bama gave up 3 returns over 30 yards, including a 90+ yard return for the game-winning score against Aggie. Still, that would be good for 47th overall and 4th in the SEC. Respectable, in other words.
But it’s a bit deeper than that, in those instances where Alabama did not surrender the occasional big play, the return coverage was outstanding, with opponents beginning their average drive on the 26.17 yard line — that was 3rd in the country in opponent average field position: only Georgia and Cincinnati were better. (The one knock on Will’s game was all those KOB. After having just 4 in his previous two seasons, WR doinked 5 out of bounds in 2020, the second-worst in the nation).
Kicking Game: B+
Kick Coverage: B+
Punting / Punt Coverage:
I’m not really going to delve into punting...again. Since the loss of JK Scott, Alabama has simply been adrift, at best, and capsized, at worst. Alabama was at or near the bottom in the country in every single metric involving punting. And was dead last in every one of those key statistics in the SEC.
The punting sucks. The punters suck. And the coaching for the punting has sucked for half-a-decade now.
However, punt coverage was undoubtedly a bright spot for ‘Bama. The longest punt return allowed? 12 yards, and they permitted just 5.7 yard per game on all punt returns. Once again, this was a fabulous group with speed and sure-tackling.
Punt Coverage: A+
This is going to be the hardest unit to grade by far.
There are, as usual, some outstanding groups, some very good ones, and then some downright awful ones. It’s the bad performances that stick in our memories, though. And in one game, it directly led to a loss. I do think it’s fair to say though that the things Alabama did very well aren’t numerous or good enough to compensate for all of the dead weight and bad play elsewhere — it was a unit that thrived on generally good coverage, a good placekicker, and some long returns. That’s not enough...not nearly enough.
Alabama’s ST efficiency is 64th, and a solid mediocrity seems about right.
Final Grade: C
Grade the 2021 Alabama Special Teams
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