The University of Alabama’s football success under Nick Saban has had a curious side effect on a week-by-week basis as every game — which means, more often than not, every victory — is dissected. Fans, analysts and opposing coaches all work at the sub-atomic level to determine where there might be a weak point. Despite winning its SEC opener on the road, the Crimson Tide is expected to be better in the following areas: running backs, offensive line, defensive line, linebackers and kicking.
Saban’s answer to all these concerns doesn’t vary much. Work to get better. Rely on fundamentals. He isn’t averse to change — check out an Alabama staff directory — but he doesn’t change willy-nilly, panicked by every perceived weak spot.
One position might be worth some extra thinking, though.
Alabama is No. 102 in NCAA team statistics in net punting. That’s not the worst mark in the SEC. Coverage has been good. There are two punters who have kicked in games — freshman Will Reichard and sophomore Skyler DeLong. Neither has been JK Scott (Unfair Comparison Alert!). Reichard has been more consistent although there may be a cumulative fatigue issue with using him on kickoffs, placements and punts. Both have kicked well in practice as far as we know, although the media viewing period almost never includes punting. There is also this week’s extra consideration as Southern Miss has the nation’s best kick returner, Jaylond Adams, and low line drives may come back almost as quickly as they went out.
Saban was asked about the dual punters in his Monday press conference.
“We’ve got to get better execution, but the thing about both guys is they’re very capable and they do a really good job of punting in the (practice),” Saban said. “We don’t have anybody else to punt besides one of those two guys. Or we could go for it on every fourth down — that’s our options. So, one of those two guys have to punt, or we go for it on fourth down every time. So, how do we approach it differently?”
Well, there it is and…wait, what was that third thing again?
Go for it every time, you say?
No one is advocating that Alabama never punt again. There is some research that indicates, as football grows more offensive-oriented, coaches do tend to go less often than the percentages suggest. There would be a complex calculation on when you go and when you don’t, involving the distance involved, the reasonable expectations for a punt by a given punter, the time and the score. But Alabama has an army of analysts who are there to calculate just such things.
In the old grind-it-out days, percentages of success weren’t particularly good and 30 yards of field position meant a lot. But with Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, and the receivers he can target, the odds have to be different. Furthermore, if the defense can’t keep the field position advantage, what is the point of a longer possession? That is not to say Alabama can’t stop anybody. They are still a good defense, especially in the red zone. But those are among the numbers that would at least be worth crunching.
Saban certainly isn’t afraid to try on fourth down. Alabama is a perfect 5-for-5 on fourth down attempts this year. Last Saturday’s signature play, the 42-yard catch-and-run highlight by Najee Harris, came on a fourth-and-2 when Alabama could have tried to pin the Gamecocks in their own territory with a punt. So Alabama isn’t afraid to roll the dice. So is it worth rolling them a little more often?
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt