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Alabama’s special teams… Not so special anymore?

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Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama has been punctuated by special teams. He seems to have finally gotten some consistency

Nick Saban’s early years in Alabama featured some great play on special teams, with Leigh Tiffin at kicker and Javier Arenas being the best return man in the country. The 2009 season, his first championship, was largely dependent on those two guys, as well as the iconic Rocky Block to keep the season alive. Even P.J. Fitzgerald turned into a strong, steady punter in that final season.

That trio graduated after the Tide’s first championship, though, and we started seeing some cracks with shaky kicking.

On November 5th, 2011, though, something broke. In a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU, Alabama missed four field goals, sending the Tide into some sort of decade-long twilight zone of special teams misadventures.

There was the Kick-6. There was the kick return fumbles in the loss to Ole Miss in 2015. Missing the game winning field goal chip shot against Georgia in the 2017 National Championship (though this one turned out ok in the end). Many of the Tide’s biggest, most public failures have been characterized by special teams.

The Tide often had one, two, or even three special teams units playing well, but it’s always been held back by one.

2011-2015 featured some really, really terrifying field goal kicking and a whole lot of fumbles in the return game, plus some misadventures in defending fakes.

In 2016 when Adam Griffith finally broke the streak of bad Alabama field goal kicking in his final season along with J.K. Scott booming 50-yard punts, the Tide came in as one of the worst in the country at kick returns (partially due to Eddie Jackson being lost for the season).

2017? Andy Pappanastos szn.

2018? Remember the Skylar DeLong experiment?

2019? DeLong pt. 2, this time with the disappearing Ty Perine act (but not in time for one critical fumble against LSU)

2020? Mostly a positive since the Tide just decided not to ever kick or punt and instead score a touchdown on every drive. But we still had the TE-trying-to-return-kicks fiasco.

2021? Who needs a punt return. Plus the Aussie punter didn’t quite live up to standard Aussie Hype.

And now, in the year of 2022, something has changed. Kicker Will Reichard is hitting 83% of his field goals with plenty of them over 50 yards. In the Texas game, he hit the Tide’s first game winning field goal since 2007, he hit a game-tying 46 yarder to send the game to overtime vs LSU, and he hit another (a 50 yarder) at the end of the Ole Miss game to put the game out of tying range for the Rebels. That’s three clutch field goals this season, which is 3xinfinity more than we’ve seen since Leigh Tiffin was around.

And on kickoffs, over 50% have gone for touchbacks, with the rest only allowing 16 yards per return.

In the punting game? James Burnip has quietly improved his game in year two for a nice 42.5 yards per punt average, and has only allowed 55 total return yards on his 34 punts. He’s had great hang time, good distance, and just generally been solid.

The Tide’s coverage units have just been excellent all around.

And in the return game Kool-Aid McKinstry is the best punt returner in the country. The Tide leads the nation in punt return yards and touchdowns… This despite opposing punters not punting a single returnable ball in the last FIVE games. McKinstry’s mere presence is forcing teams into willingly giving up good field position.

Want an example? Ole Miss’s punter, Fraser Masin, punted 4 times for an average of 34 yards. Lest you thing Masin is just a bad punter, he has averaged 43.2 yards per punt through the rest of the season.

And in the kick return game, Jahmyr Gibbs has 21 yards per return, though teams have mostly resorted to kicking unreturnable balls to him as well.

So what changed?

Erik pointed out how great of a hire Coleman Hutzler was for special teams coordinator back in January. And we’ve seen Will Reichard continue to blossom into Alabama’s career leading scorer, James Burnip improve from bad to good, and Kool-Aid McKinstry come from nowhere to be the best return man in the country.

For many, many years, a common refrain among Alabama fans and opposing fans alike is that Nick Saban sold his soul for National Championships, and the cost was to forever be cursed with special teams.

So it only seems fitting (destined?) that they finally put it all together in the very year that the offense and defense have both left Tide fans wanting changes.

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