What to say about the 2021 Alabama Special Teams unit that hasn’t been said before (and often with expletives)? It was a group that was very good against return men — save one costly play — very good at placekicking, disastrous at punting, and outside of JaMo, Alabama had a return game that was more anemic than a Gender Role-Play panel at SXSW.
Something had to change. It did.
And first up on Coleman Hutzler’s to-do list in 2022 is finding playmakers for the return game and anyone that can punt a football further than 38 yards.
Jameson Williams, the nation’s most dynamic returner. His loss cannot be overstated. Unless a threat is located, the Tide has no one else that is proven to be able to generate field position off the kicking game. The Tide’s other three top returners are gone as well, and their names alone give you a scale of the disaster here: Brian Robinson, Slade Bolden, and Jahleel Billingley.
LS Thomas Fletcher
And a bunch of punters, all of whom were interchangeable in their wretchedness.
PK Will “BDE” Reichard returns for his Senior Season, and that a blessing. He has a strong and accurate leg, and with a full season of actual work (versus the random chip shots of 2020), proved to be a good college kicker.
LS Gabe Pugh, Kneeland Hibbett, Alex Rozier, and Kade Whelby.
P/PK Jack Martin — Martin was the deep KO specialist last year, but by trade is a punter. He did a great job at Troy, and looks to be battling it out for the starting job with Burnip.
James Burnip — Wouldn’t you know it? Alabama finally gets one of those Aussie punters and his career long is 51 yards, with an average of 39.1 YPP. Sigh. He’s back though, and it may be his job to lose.
A bunch of other potential KR/PR, all of whom were interchangeable in their wretchedness. JoJo Earle was having a good offseason, and figured to get an early look at one of the spots, but then he broke his foot, and those Jones fractures can linger all year. Kool-Aid McKinstry has seen the most work back there, particularly at PR. Nick Saban has singled him out for praise. But, honestly, all of these are wildcard.
Projected 2022 Starters:
PK: Will Reichard. The Lou Groza nominee ain’t going anywhere.
LS: So. Kneeland Hibbett This is his job. Period. He started as a true freshman, took every snap, and did not botch a single one. Far more interesting is who is his backup. RS So. Gabe Pugh was nationally ranked, and the staff thought so highly of him that he was redshirted to save a year of eligibility. It’s almost certainly his job if called upon. Pugh has the size similar to Hibbett (6’5” 260), the right pedigree, and the experience both within the program and working with the specialists as Fletcher’s backup. For the first time in the Saban era LS looks to actually have depth. Weird.
PR: Kool-Aid McKinstry. The brash, speedy, soft-handed, fearless Kool-Aid has gotten the most looks in Fall, has been the most consistent, and has produced the best results. This is his job.
KR: Hard to get a read on this one, given the lack of experience back there. Saban usually likes to pair a dedicated return specialist (DB or WR) with a sure-handed, steadier player at the KR2 spot. That has generally been a slot receiver or a running back. And, sure enough, Jahmyr Gibbs has been on the KR unit. His speed. experience, and smooth open field running is just what the Tide’s kick return game needed — and we could actually see Gibbs as KR1. But who’s going back there with him at KR2? We’ll say Kool-Aid...for now, though odds are good that it will be a wide receiver or slot man out of nowhere. The other 50% of this will likely be a position battle for several weeks. We pencil in Kool-Aid, but I doubt that holds by the start of SEC play.
P James Burnip: Look, I know. I’m not happy about it either. But Burnip swears he finally understands what he’s doing back there, how to punt, and even gets the rules of the game now (he had never played organized football). We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, since Jack Martin couldn’t even beat out last year’s soup cans for some PT. But don’t take our word for it: take Will Reichard at his word — Burnip is a different player this year. We hope. If not? Well, then Alabama just has to score every danged time they get the ball.
Who is returning kicks with Gibbs?
This poll is closed
Someone other than Kool-Aid
I don’t pay attention to kick returns since that means Alabama has given up a score and/or I’m still too busy peeing at the commercial break