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2022 Alabama Football Report Card: Special Teams were the best, most consistent units on the field

Someone pinch me, am I dreaming?

Alabama v Arkansas
Look at me showing a punter some love, even though kickers aren’t people
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The 2022 Crimson Tide football season was such a weird one in so many ways: personnel groups either made vast improvements or precipitous declines over their output in 2021. There was practically no in-between to be had, and almost no incremental changes. The 2022 Special Teams once again showed that trend.

Here’s what we said in summary last year:

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

And 2021 was a year that saw a lot of ups and downs: F+ punting with A+ punt coverage; JaMo A+ in kick returns, the rest of the team a D, etc. Only kicking was really steady, with both kicks and kick coverage earning a B+.

So, what happened in 2022?

As with other groups we’ve seen this year (Corner, RB, O Line), as a whole the special teams units made tremendous strides. That’s the good news. There are few black flies in the chardonnay, but we’ll cross that bridge as we arrive.

Kicking / Kick Coverage Game:

The biggest point of emphasis going into 2022 was always going to be on better return coverage. We said that when the Tide hired Coleman Huztler:

Interestingly, Coach Hutzler also changed the kickoff philosophy to one that mirrors Saban’s approach, preferring to have the ball placed right at the end zone rather than through the back of it — let your elite speed work for you. And the result is that Ole Miss went from opponents beginning possessions at the 33.7 yard line in 2020 to taking 29.8 in 2021.

On return coverage, the Rebels were fantastic. By moving to an approach that put more air under punts, the Rebels allowed just one explosive return all season (21 yards). On kick coverage, Ole Miss was even better — it allowed no returns over 10 yards all season.

In all, it is a beautiful fit for Nick Saban’s philosophy, and one that ticks off all the areas in which Alabama has been the flakiest of late, but which still maintains those things that the Tide does well: Preventing returns, hang-time punting that still gets distance, improved kick and punt returning.

Did that manifest mission succeed?

Yes, with a bullet.

Alabama was “just” 4th in the SEC in YPR allowed, but it shaved off almost 2 full yards from its returns, and opponents began play inside the 25 on 64% of their possessions, with average possession beginning at the 24.78 yard line, down from the 26.17 yard line in 2021. Simply an outstanding job here. Alabama was T-1st in the country in long returns allowed as well: no kicks over 30 yards, and no returns for a score. Even Will Richard chipped in on the field position war and raised his percentage of forced touchbacks all the way to 47.47%. For good measure, he even had his fewest number of kicks out of bounds: Zero, a career best.

Hutzler’s improvement showed up in other ways too. The Tide put more pressure on kickers, as the Tide went from 43rd in the country in PAT conversions allowed to 8th. Even some good news to report on the field goal defense! After seeing opponents literally not miss a single kick in three seasons, Alabama shot up all the way to 99th in the nation, and opponents FGA conversions were “just” 85%. Three field goals were missed: Which equals the previous five seasons combined. And, as usual, Alabama nailed down its requisite 2-3 kicks blocked. This year, it was two.

And, in terms of kicking, really what else can you say about Will BDE Reichard?

He was first in the nation in PATs (perfect 100%), fifth in converted PATs, led Alabama in scoring once again, jumped to Top Third nationally in percentage — 84.6%, and all four of his misses came in one flaky three-game stretch in October against Aggie, Piggie, and the Hillpeople. Three of those kicks didn’t affect the outcome, but that miss in Neyland loomed large. Still, as many close games as Alabama was in, and as dysfunctional as that game was, you can’t pin that L on him. In fact, it was the only kick he missed against ranked opponents all year. In the Tide’s other six contests against ranked teams, he was 12 of 12. In terms of made kicks vs. ranked opponents, Will was 5th in the nation.

Outstanding improvement in literally every area of kicking and kick coverage. That’s coaching.

Kicking: A
Kick Coverage: A+

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Allstate Sugar Bowl Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Punting / Punt Coverage:

I was disgusted with 2021’s punting. Here’s what we said:

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.

Punting: F+
Punt Coverage: A+

So, did we see any improvement over 2021’s calamitous battle for field position?

Let’s begin with the punt returns allowed.

It’s hard to improve over an A+. I regret to inform you they declined — going from 5.7 yards per game allowed to...5.9 YPA. In ten games, they allowed 10 or fewer yards. And the longest PR allowed was 13 yards. So, no, not really. They did not even remotely decline, except in that one game where they allowed one yard more than in 2021. FIRE EVERYBODY!

Okay, that’s the good news. What about the bad news. Does the punting still suck?

Well, objectively it’s not great, but nor is it terrible — just 73rd nationally. But recall: this was a team that was dead last in the SEC in punting, and 124th in the country. Punting improved from 38.33 YPK to 41.36 — almost a 10% increase, and nearing the national median of 41.74. In fact, I’m going to give them those extra nine inches (TWHS) and proclaim that 41.74 vs. 41.96 yards is practically meaningless. There is even better news too: Burnip alone averaged 42.36 YPA — which is good for 5th in the SEC. And he’ll be a junior this year, so there’s plenty of room to grow into a Top Third type of guy.

Is there room for improvement? Sure. There always is. And, yes, the biggest issue is that the worst punt of the season came when ‘Bama needed it the most: a feeble 31-yarder at Neyland, that UT would later turn into some points.

Still, this team went from a half decade of stinkiness to mediocre with an asterisk. And we’ll take it.

Punt Coverage: A+...again.
Punting: Gentlemanly C+

Return Game

Last year, we sent out this desperate cry, anxious for some other person to be competent on kick 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.

JaMo: A+
The Rest: D+
Overall Return Game: C-

Boy, did we ever get that change.

But it was some Monkey’s Paw shit: Alabama went from one superstar and a lot of duds, to just flat-out awful across the board.

Be careful what you wish for

How bad was it? Let us count the ways:

  • Alabama went from 20th to 99th in kick returns.
  • After having the best returner in the nation in 2021, Alabama did not have a single KOR that was in the Top 200 in 2022.
  • It was 101st in KOR yards gained.
  • In two losses, Alabama average 14.2 YPR — the worst in the country.
  • In SEC play, Alabama went from 20.1 YPA to 15.86, third worst in the SEC.
  • Against teams with winning records, it was in the bottom five nationally — a woeful 14 yards per attempt.

I could go on, but this is actually too disgraceful to type and my stomach is already queasy today.

So, le’s end this part on a high note, at least: Punt returns were much better to behold, especially where Alabama was coming from (already bad), and who they lost (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 16 yards.

Folks, we finally found the right combination of punt coaching and punt returner. Kool-Aid McKinstry led the nation in punt returns and took two to the house. He is supremely talented back there, and has the fearlessness, hands, and shimmy that such a terrifying and dangerous job requires.

The Tide were the best in nationally in long punt return plays, doubling last season’s output and averaging almost one per game. They were 3rd in the nation in PR average, and ‘Bama led the country in punt return yards per game. That wasn’t illusory either or being rang up against soup cans, as we saw in 2021: Against ranked opponents, Alabama was 15th in YPA. This group was so good, that opponents wised up. In Alabama’s final 8 games, Kool-Aid only saw six total returnable kicks.

That’s respect. That’s fear.
More of that, please.

Kick Returns: F-, Not one single bright spot here. Period.
Punt Returns: A+

Putting it all together

Man, I feel like a broken record at this point, since we said it with corners and with running backs and with offensive line: What a difference a year and some coaching makes.

Alabama went from its usual-unsteady output in 2021 to an absolute terrifying special teams squad, even if it was not as outwardly dangerous as it may have seemed with JaMo. The kicking, already good, approached elite territory. The punting went from among the nation’s worst to middle of the pack — and Burnip’s 42 YPA are much better than the team numbers. Don’t be surprised if the Aussie has a big year this season. All signs are pointing that direction. Pressure on kicks and punts was noticeable and showed up on the scoreboard. Punt returning was an absolute weapon that half the schedule didn’t even test. And an already good kick coverage game was elite in both phases.

The only real demerits against this squad are one bad punt, one missed field goal, and the need for kick returners to emerge. The latter is likely one of finding the right fit, rather than the right coaching. It’s abundantly clear that Hutzler is earning his paycheck everywhere else on the field.

If that’s all that we have to grouse about — and it is — then you see why Alabama went from 64th in special teams efficiency all the way to 9th. This is, taken as a whole, an elite unit and a legitimate weapon that emphasizes the third phase of the game. It was refreshing to see consistency in one phase at least. Hell, even kick returns were consistent (sure, consistently terrible, but consistent).

Give that man a raise. And if Coach can find some kick returners, give him a bigger one.

2022 Final Grade: A
2021 Final Grade: C


Grade the 2022 Alabama Special Teams

This poll is closed

  • 5%
    (8 votes)
  • 41%
    (58 votes)
  • 37%
    (53 votes)
  • 10%
    (15 votes)
  • 2%
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    (1 vote)
  • 2%
    Quit clowning. They didn’t earn a D or F
    (3 votes)
141 votes total Vote Now