Southern Miss spent an offseason addressing the anomaly that was a subpar offense in 2018. After finishing under 30 points per game for the first time since 2014, the Golden Eagles acquired three junior college offensive linemen and even entertained the idea of hiring one of college football’s lightning rods, former Baylor head coach Art Briles.
It turns out all Southern Miss needed to do was hand its kick return duties to Jaylond Adams.
Adams took the opening kickoff of Southern Miss’ season back for a touchdown and has not slowed down since, now leading the nation with two kickoff return touchdowns as the only player in the nation to have returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown this season. He now has No. 2 Alabama’s full attention.
“This is one of the most explosive teams that we’ve played on special teams,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “This is not a time for us to be thinking that we don’t have to prepare well and work to focus on the things that we need to do to play well in our preparation for this game. We need to go to work on that.”
Adams is coming back to his home state for the game, having gone to Southern Miss out of Minor High School in Adamsville. He had a punt return touchdown against Alcorn State after the returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown, then his kick return with 11 minutes left against Troy was a pivotal moment in that 47-42 win. Adams is also a threat on offense: his 18 catches for 257 yards are good for first and second, respectively, both on his team and in Conference USA.
“He’s an exceptional returner, arguably one of the best in college football,” Alabama wide receiver Henry Ruggs III said. “Of course, they have a good scheme, a team that takes passion in the return game. Special teams is a big part of the game and they have been having success with it.”
The matchup comes at a time when UA is having issues with punting. At the beginning of the season, Saban hoped to take punting off the plate of starting placekicker and kickoff specialist Will Reichard in the interest of workload management, thus giving punting duties to Skyler DeLong. Since then — after UA’s lone punt against South Carolina went for 14 yards — Saban said last week and this week he is willing to use whomever can get the job done.
“I mean, I don’t care which guy’s punting,” Saban said. “The thing about both guys is they’re very capable and they do a really good job of punting in the game. We don’t have anybody else to punt besides one of those two guys or we could go for it on every fourth down, and 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? We’ve got to get those guys to execute, they’re capable of executing and they’ve done a really good job of doing it in practice. We just have not seen it in the game.”
That being the case, UA may have to lean on its star-studded kick coverage teams to contain Adams. UA is currently top 20 nationally in yards per kick return allowed, and Ruggs has an idea why.
“Probably just preaching that we race down the field, that’s the biggest thing,” Ruggs said. “We race to see who can get to the ball first and who can make the tackle first. Of course, with Will (Reichard) kicking the ball with good hang time, it lets us get down there before the return team can set up.”
Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson