Often the most overlooked aspect of a football game – especially when the offense is putting up video game-like numbers and the defense isn’t quite living up to the stingy standards of the past – special teams remains a pivotal piece to the equation for Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
Case in point, following the Crimson Tide’s 59-31 win over Ole Miss two weeks ago, during which sophomore returner Jaylen Waddle averaged nearly 30 yards on two punt returns and sophomore linebacker Ale Kaho blocked a third-quarter punt and then recovered it for a touchdown, Saban made sure to emphasize the mistakes that could’ve been quite costly.
“We also turned the ball over on a muffed punt,” Saban said, referring to a first-quarter mistake by Waddle that would lead to the Rebels’ first touchdown. “Which was a big play that led to one of their scores. I think special teams is really, really critical. … All in all, I was really pleased with the way we played on (special) teams, but you have to get possession of the ball when they’re punting to us. That’s the No. 1 thing.”
As mentioned, Waddle more than redeemed himself with a pair of 29-yard returns on his next two punt opportunities, both of which helped set up touchdown scores for Alabama’s offense.
When asked about his special teams this past week, Saban was a lot more effusive, except when it came to his specialists — most notably kickers Joseph Bulovas and Will Reichard and punter Skyler DeLong.
“I think that the special teams have been very good, and I think that’s where the team has an impact — our kickoff coverage is very good, punt return is very good,” Saban said Wednesday. “Where we need to improve, I think, is execution by specialists.”
Reichard, a true freshman from nearby Hoover, hasn’t practiced much of the past three weeks with a hip flexor injury suffered when his foot hit the tee on a first-quarter kickoff against Southern Miss, but is considered “day-to-day” with a chance to return Saturday at Texas A&M, albeit possibly limited. In his absence, the sophomore Bulovas was 1 of 2 on field goals against Ole Miss, including a miss from just 28 yards, while DeLong has averaged just 29.6 yards on his last five punts this season. That has contributed to Alabama ranking dead-last nationally in net punting with just 390 yards on 11 tries, an average of 35.45 yards per punt that ranks 127th of 130 Division I programs.
“So, in the areas where we’re ranked very low, whether it’s net punt or punting average or whatever, it has a lot to do with who’s punting,” Saban said, an indirect rebuke of DeLong. “The same thing on whether it’s field goal percentages or whatever. I think the special teams have been very good. We need to continue to improve in all those areas, but I think we need to get a little more consistent execution from our specialists.”
Texas A&M senior punter Braden Mann is hands-down the nation’s best punter after averaging nearly 51 yards per punt to be crowned last season’s Ray Guy Award winner. Mann also owns the NCAA record with 14 punts of 60-or-more yards last year and set the NCAA’s single-game gross-punting average record at 60.8 yards against Alabama a year ago.
Suffice it to say, the Crimson Tide return team knows what they’re facing in Mann. But add in a sophomore kicker in Seth Small who’s 8-of-10 on field goals this season with a long of 50 yards, and a pair of quality returners in Roshauud Paul and Ainias Smith, who is averaging 22.3 yards on three kick returns, Alabama is in for a special teams battle Saturday.
"They are really good. They have been really good in the past couple of years when Alabama has faced them, excellent actually,” senior cornerback and return man Trevon Diggs said. “I feel like our special teams is just as good as them. But that is going to be one of the things that is a factor in the game and we are going to have to step up and stop them and execute our calls and do what we have to do on special teams to win the game."
So far this season, Mann is tied for third nationally averaging 48.4 yards per punt, including a long of 68, and ranks fourth in the SEC averaging 64.4 yards on 36 kickoffs with 23 touchbacks.
“There's gonna be opportunity, but it’s what I make of it,” said Waddle, whose 17.4 average yards per punt return lead the SEC. “I mean, if the opportunity comes, you just got to make a play. ”
Although many teams have tended to avoid Waddle as much as possible, the muff against Ole Miss might be enough for Texas A&M to challenge him a little, and the sophomore from Houston will undoubtedly be eager to put on a show in his return to his home state.
If given a chance, Waddle has proven he’s capable of special things with the ball in his hand, and the dynamic playmaker only needs one or two blocks to flip the game on its head with a special teams score.