Much of the Alabama Crimson Tide is in flux for 2023: everything from both coordinator spots to a decimated defensive backfield. But there is one unit that returns almost everyone, and though it is strange to say this, Alabama’s special teams could be the best returning unit for the Crimson Tide, at least early in the season.
We start with addition by subtraction: there are no significant departures of note. Speedy Jahmyr Gibbs handled kick returns for the Tide last season, but he was largely ineffective. Alabama was just 96th in the nation in returns at 17.71 YPA, and even had just two explosive returns of 30+ yards, with no scores. Others that saw action were even less effective, including Ja’Corey Brooks. There is plenty of zip on the Tide roster, but finding the right pairing of people will be required, even though the KR game has increasingly been deemphasized with new rules regarding touchbacks.
It may not be exciting, and the Tide lacks a returning weapon here. But it’s fortunately also at the least critical spot of the entire Special Teams unit.
Punt Returning, however, is a very different critter. Last year, Alabama was 3rd in the nation in PRA, at 16.93 YPA with two scores. ‘Bama also led the nation in total yards by way of PR, with almost 500 freebies. Electric Kool-Aid McKinstry returns again at punt returner, where he was 2nd in the nation last year in both total yards and YPA. Kool-Aid also led the country in explosive returns, notching eight returns that went at least 20 yards, and half of those were 30 or longer. Interestingly enough, though ‘Bama had two PR scores, McKinstry had neither of them. The free points are nice, but reliably gaining yards per touch on change of possessions was the far more consistent weapon for the Alabama offense.
On the other side of the ball, ‘Bama may actually be in even better shape.
Super Senior All-SEC Will Reichard returns for one final ride in the saddle, hoping to finally get the draft inertia he’s been criminally overlooked for. Will has the leg to get the ball through the back of the endzone, but Alabama’s coverage emphasizes kicking the ball right to the goal line and then baiting opponents to test their luck vs. the Tide’s speed. Will forced a TB on 48% of his attempts, but his distance was filthy-good, right at 63 yards per attempt. For those trying to do the math, that means 50% of all of Will’s kicks landed at the two-yard line. The coverage unit came through in a big way too, as Alabama permitted zero returns for a score and Alabama was 8th in the nation in allowing a total of just two explosive returns.
Offensively, Will is every bit the outstanding kicker we have come to expect. Reichard banged home 85% of his attempts, for the first time in his career did not miss an XP, and he saved his best for when it most mattered: against ranked opponents, Will hit 94% of his kicks, missing just one try all year against ‘Bama’s seven ranked foes. For a second straight season, he led the Tide in scoring too (130 points). This is perhaps the biggest returnee for the 2023 season that no one is talking about.
After about half a decade in the doldrums of 38 yards per kick, the punting game also edged into respectability. James Burnip is the reason for that, as the Aussie had a far more palatable 42.0 YPA. Sure, that’s just 10th in the SEC, but it beats dead-last, as Alabama has consistently been since the departure of JK Scott. Alabama allowed just about 6 YPA to punt returners, zero scores. But more impressively, it led the country with zero explosive returns allowed. That is working out to 36 free yards to assist the defense, in other words.
And both Burnip and Reichard also benefit from the return of now-three year starting LS, and Gump legacy Kneeland Hibbett. The fact most people don’t know his name is a good thing. Hibbett has not had a bobble in two years as the starting long snapper. This has been one of those quiet positions of excellence at Alabama, and Hibbett continues that tradition.
There will be hiccups along the way on both sides of the ball for the Crimson Tide this year, at least early. But this is why you build strength in all three phases of the game. As the Tide finds its way with a new trigger man and playcaller, having a weapon at placekicker, a solid punter, a dangerous return man, and outstanding coverage on punts and KOR will be a tremendous boon for ‘Bama.
It feels odd to say this, but Alabama’s special teams features the best returning unit on the field entering the 2023 season.
All this special teams praise:
This poll is closed
Now has me worried. Great, you jinxed it.
Has me vaguely aroused
Who cares. Kickers aren’t people
I still don’t know if I trust it. I’ve been hurt so many times before.