Alabama’s offense ran 60 plays against Florida State. Its defense was on the field for 60 plays as well.
But Alabama’s third unit – its special teams – made the most of its 29 total plays.
That’s when Damien Harris blocked a punt that set Alabama up for a field goal. That’s when Minkah Fitzpatrick blocked a field goal attempt before halftime to preserve a three-point lead. That’s when Keith Holcombe recovered a fumble on a kickoff return that put the Crimson Tide in position for a touchdown.
“This year we’re going to take pride in our special teams,” Holcombe said. “We know it can make or break a game.”
None of those three players would qualify as a role player who chips in on fourth down. Harris is UA’s starting running back, Fitzpatrick is perhaps its best player and Holcombe is a major contributor at linebacker. But they’re called upon to play on fourth down, just as they are on first, second and third.
They’re hardly the only ones. Starting inside linebacker Rashaan Evans recovered the field goal that Fitzpatrick blocked. Safety Ronnie Harrison plays on UA’s coverage units. Hale Hentges started at tight end, but also plays on the field goal team and the kickoff return team. The list goes on and on.
“That obviously increases your workload a lot, but like you guys saw in the game, special teams is so important because they created so many situations for us to get ahead in that game,” Hentges said. “By doing that, by putting great players on special teams, you give yourself a great chance to win.”
That was the case on Saturday. The blocked punt, blocked field goal and forced fumble on the kickoff alone accounted for a 14-point swing in the game, which was decided by 17 points.
It might not be a surprise in the locker room for Alabama to use some of its biggest stars on special teams. But it’s not normal everywhere.
“Every team across the country has great athletes,” Harris said. “I think it’s the mindset that separates us from other teams, that willingness to go out and do anything you can to make a play. Players that play offense, are willing to play special teams. Players that play on defense are willing to play on special teams. Anybody that can go in and make a play whether you’ve been here for three years or four years or you’re a starter, it doesn’t matter.”
Alabama’s depth also allows it to use more star players on more special teams. Harris can take a breather on offense, then come back on fourth down when needed. Other programs might want to limit his workload to when he has the ball in his hands.
There’s good reason for star players to get experience on special teams, too. It can make them more versatile for when their college careers end.
“At the NFL level, if you don’t play a starting position, you play special teams,” said star receiver Calvin Ridley. “All our starters, whoever, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can play special teams to help the team.”
Other starters have made key special teams plays for Alabama in recent years, too. Cornerback Cyrus Jones was a star punt returner. Running back Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the 2015 national championship. Defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen blocked field goals or extra points. Safety Eddie Jackson had two punt returns for touchdowns last year.
Their jobs weren’t done when third down was over. They all contributed in the third phase of the game as well as the first or second.
Harris was Alabama’s leading rusher in the game. He was one of the UA’s players of the week – both on offense and on special teams. Coach Nick Saban liked how he played, and it wasn’t all about running the ball.
“Damien played really well in the game, not only as a running back when he had the ball, but he played really well without the ball and he did really well on the special teams,” Saban said. “He made a big play on special teams in blocking the punt, but was effective with other things he did on special teams as well.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.