Alabama's Glaring Weakness in 2010: Special Teams - Champions of The Round Table

Champions of The Round Table

 
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The offseason has been wonderful for Alabama fans. The team, university administration, student body, and supporters throughout the country have taken in once again what it means to be a champion.

Some fans, of course, take a little too much credit for what the team on the field accomplished, but that is the nature of a sports fan.

There have been many articles written in spring and off season about the progress of the offense and the great potential for success once again on defense, but little has been mentioned about special teams.

It is the one glaring weakness that the 2010 team will have to overcome. Every single component of the kicking team "battery" will be replaced by team members that have never served in that small core of athletes that means so much to the success of special teams efforts.

Long snapper Brian Selman, holder and punter, P.J. Fitzgerald, as well as four-year kicker Leigh Tiffin have graduated, and each has moved on to have a career outside of sports.

All-American Leigh Tiffin had a shot at making the professional ranks. In fact, he signed a free-agent deal on May 3 with the Cleveland Browns. He was quickly waived/injured on May 18, and subsequently released from the injured reserve on May 26 by means if an injury settlement.

Punter

Like Tiffin, P.J. Fitzgerald was a four-year starter at punter and showed improvement in technique and effectiveness each and every year. Having said this, remarkably, his statistics from year one to year four are very similar.

From 2006 through 2009, Fitzgerald (a high school quarterback) averaged 59.5 punts per year and 39.75 yards per punt. As a senior, he punted 58 times and averaged 41.5 yards per punt. That is 2407 yards of field position change over a season.

He attempted one fake punt per year by rushing and in his senior year attempted a fake by pass twice. He was intercepted on one of the two attempts.

Fitzgerald made two tackles per year as punter. One of those tackles, against the Florida Gators, in the SEC championship game, was a touchdown saving tackle.

Knowing this and having watched him play, it is the finer things in the techniques that make a noticeable difference and contribute to wins over an entire season.

During spring practice, offensive lineman Taylor Pharr had put himself in a position to contend for the starting role as punter. In fact, he had proved to be dependable and effective.

Unfortunately, Pharr had taken one too many blows to the head during his short career and ultimately ended his playing days. In an announcement soon after the A-Day game, the University indicated that Pharr would be opting for a medical scholarship.

Pharr did not participate in the spring game. Punting in the A-Day game was primarily performed by Zach Goehler, a high school quarterback, standing 6'5" and 185 lbs. Goehler walked-on to the Alabama team. Following the spring game, Saban indicated that the position of punter would be determined during fall camp.

If Goehler makes the team in the fall, his effectiveness in the A-Day game does not give confidence to the Alabama fan that the position will be effectively manned throughout the season.

At the time of this writing, there is no one listed on the Alabama roster as a punter. Not one. That is a problem. True freshman Jay Williams (6'4", 225 lbs.) is expected to report for fall camp. Goehler, though listed in a recent media publication as a potential player for the position, is not listed on the Alabama roster. That is likely because at this point in time, all of those listed are scholarship players.

If Jay Williams performs well in fall camp, it will be a breath of fresh air but it means nothing as to how well he will perform against Penn State in the second home game of the season, and gives no indication as to how he will handle the frantic SEC schedule.

There will be scary moments in the punting game during the 2010 season, to say the least. The offense and defense will have to prepare to make up for the deficiency.

Place Kicker

During his career at the University of Alabama, Leigh Tiffin made 83 field goals and 136 PATs, for a total of 385 points. He is Alabama's all-time leading scorer.

But that doesn't mean he was always money!

In 2006, as a freshman, taking on duties in the hostile environs of Razorback Stadium, Tiffin was 1-for-4 in field goals and accounted for five points in the game.

He connected on a 46-yard field goal at the end of the half to put the Tide ahead 10-7.

In the second half, he missed three field goals from 30-39 yards. To add insult to injury, he also missed an extra point after Alabama scored a go-ahead touchdown in overtime. Alabama lost the overtime game 24-23.

Tiffin was benched for the next four games, yielding duties to teammate Jamie Christensen. In fact, the Arkansas game was his last for the year with the exception of two extra points against FIU during week nine.

Christensen, while not dependable beyond 40 yards, finished the season as the number one place kicker. Alabama attempted only three field goals beyond 40 yard for the remainder of the year.

The remaining three years of Tiffin's career at Alabama were exemplary. He wasn't just money, as his predecessor was often referred to, Tiffin was gold; pure gold.

In 2007, Tiffin was 23-of-32, scoring 69 points on field goals. He was perfect on PAT's, adding another 34 points. Thus, he accounted for 103 points scored on the year.

In 2008, he continued to excel, connecting on 7-8 from 20-29 yards, 9-11 from 30-39 and 3-7 beyond 40 yards. He accounted for 101 points on the year, missing on only one of 45 PAT attempts.

During 2009, Tiffin was 13-of-13 from 20-29 yards, 10-of-12 between 30-39 yards and 6-of-8 from beyond 40 yards. On PATs Tiffin was 39-of-41, missing twice against North Texas in a 53-7 rout.

At Ole Miss, Leigh Tiffin was 5-5 on field goal attempts accounting for 16 of the 22 points scored against the rebels in a game that was much closer than the 22-3 score revealed. That win gave as much confidence to the Alabama team as the opening season victory against the Virginia Tech Hokies.

Against South Carolina, LT scored on two of three field goal attempts and added two points on PATs. At the end of the third quarter, Alabama led the game 13-6, Tiffin accounting for seven of the 13 points. Alabama did not close out the game until a fourth quarter jail break by eventual Heisman Trophy winner, Mark Ingram.

And in one of the best games in the 2009 season, Tiffin was 4-4 against the Tennessee Volunteers, scoring all 12 points allowed by the Volunteer defense. Alabama won the game 12-10.

Four games in the 2009 undefeated season were won by a margin less than the number of points scored by the legacy place kicker. Those games included wins against Virginia Tech, Tennessee, LSU, and Auburn. Again, pure gold.

In 2010, Alabama will have to make up for the void that Leigh Tiffin leaves the special teams. Saban begins by filling that void with the best high school place kicker in the nation. Cade Foster entered campus in January with a full football scholarship.

Foster (6'2", 225 lb) is out of South Lake Carroll High School, home of another fine Alabama player, Greg McElroy. He is not only a great scoring threat, but an excellent kick-off specialist and even better tackler.

Kick-offs are his strength, having made multiple 80 yard kicks with four-plus second hang times resulting in a large number of touchbacks for the opposition. In 2009, Foster rated as the APSE Class 5A First Team All-State selection. As a linebacker on the team, Foster contributed with 105 tackles (5 sacks).

In his career at South Lake Carroll, he was 234 out of 243 PATs, harnessing the state career record and landing him fifth in national history (the record is 350 points).

Foster was also successful on 35 of 46 field goal attempts. His longest is 49 yards.

As a senior Foster accounted for 91 points for his team, 61 on PAT and 30 points on field goals. He earned All-District honors for his play at place kicker.

His high school coach, Hal Wasson, said about Foster: "he's blessed with a lot of strength and works hard to improve himself. No doubt, he will have a lot of success at Alabama and parlay that into success in the NFL."

Well, as a writer and fan, I am glad to hear all that and impressed with the statistics but I hope it translates to success early on. No doubt, provided that he remains healthy, he has the potential to be a four year starter at Alabama.

While people often balk at considering kickers as tough individuals, they often have to be in position to make score saving tackles, as Fitzgerald did in the SEC championship game. With the bonus of having played at linebacker and recording more than 70 tackles in his senior year, I'd say he is ready.

He will be challenged by sophomore Jeremy Shelley and senior Colin Gallagher, both with experience but very little playing time outside of the practice field. Saban may make room for one walk-on to challenge the three listed on the roster.

Long Snapper

Carson Tinker is a sophomore at the Capstone and will take over long snapper duties from veteran Brian Selman. Selman was a fixture in the position for three solid years. Tinker has been sitting back and waiting for his opportunity, learning from one of the best snappers Alabama has had for many years.

If you review tape from the past two years, you will see that Selman nearly always held his blocks on punts and extra points. In addition, he was frequently down-field on punts assisting with the tackle or downing the ball.

Since his playing days at Riverdale High School in Murphreesboro, TN, Tinker has had interest in becoming a long snapper specialist. He is listed at 6'1" and 220 lbs., down ten pounds from his high school weight of 230 lbs., likely much stronger and leaner from training under strength and conditioning coach, Scott Cochran.

In spring practice and his participation in the A-Day game, Tinker has the opportunity to take over this position and become a leader on special teams. He will likely be snapping the ball to A.J. McCarron on field goals, who served in that capacity during practices thorough-out 2009, in the national championship game and during the A-Day game.

Punt/Kickoff Returner

It first seemed that 2010 would allow the opportunity for fifth year senior Terry Grant to take over as the main punt and kick-off returner, ending his career with an opportunity to shine.

Nagging injuries, timely graduation and life's challenges tugged at Grant's heart and called the beloved Mississippi native to hang up his cleats and move forward with life beyond football.

He will be missed and many graced by his presence acknowledge his gift to give more than his natural ability allowed. He was and is a special individual and Alabama Football is better for having had his input and all out effort for four solid years.

But Nick Saban and Bobby Williams have a job to do and filling the void of Javier Arenas will be one of the toughest. In particular, the void as return specialist.

Arenas averaged 24.1 yards per kick-off return and 14.2 yards on punts. His seven punt returns for touchdowns broke a long held SEC record. Against Auburn, a 56 yard punt return set Arenas apart from all other SEC returners as the all time leader in punt return yards for the conference.

Over the early course of his career, Arenas time and time again gave better field position to the Crimson Tide than was expected. Toward the end of his career, it was expected, in particular, by the opposition coaches.

By the second half of the 2009 SEC season, in the SEC championship game and in the national championship game, kickers were being told not to kick to the dangerous return man. In fact, kicks were blocked, placed out of bounds and muffed due to the hesitation of the opposing kicker.

In 2010, Alabama has to find a new return man that will put fear into the opposition. That doesn't happen early on. That kind of respect is earned. It can be used to your advantage if you have the right kind of player ready to break out.

Alabama is loaded with talent at the wide receiver and running back positions, generally the positions that feed into the return specialist. Defensive backs may also contribute to the talent pool.

At this point, not much is known as to how the return specialist position will unfold. Julio Jones and Trent Richardson were given opportunities during the regular season last year. Opportunity was offered in the spring, as well. The position is not settled.

Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks, Brandon Gibson, Eddie Lacy, and B.J. Scott will be given a chance to separate from the pack. Ingram is also a possibility but his coveted contribution from the backfield will be more important. DeMarcus Milliner returned the ball in high school but it is not likely that a freshman will fill the position for 2010.

Regardless, making up for the 1750+ yard Arenas recorded during his career will be a daunting task. Don't expect all to be settled as Alabama takes the field in September. But know this, the first play of the season will be by the special teams division. And like he has done since his day of arrival in 2007, Nick Saban is preparing for that moment.

His coaches are some of the finest in the land. They are focused and will have the players performing at their highest level for the 2010 season.

8/5/2010 13:04:56

Meet new people, even if they look different to you;Remain calm, even when it seems hopeless.

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    By: Jonathan Fravel

    From: Bleacher Report (Alabama Featured Columnist)

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