Saturday afternoon the Alabama special teams tasked junior Xavian Marks with returning punts, and for the second week in a row, it was an adventure.
A week after Trevon Diggs and Henry Ruggs III combined for three fumbled punts (one of which was a lost fumble), Marks bobbled and fumbled a punt in the third quarter and a quarter later secured a punt only to fumble on the return after being tackled from behind by a defender. Marks did a have a long return against Tennessee, but it was wiped out due to a questionable block-in-the-back penalty on Keaton Anderson. He finished the game with five punt returns for 25 yards.
Ball security on punt returns is a point of emphasis during the Crimson Tide’s bye week. Marks, Ruggs and Diggs are still under consideration to handle punts.
Another player who practices punt return but has never done so in a game is a familiar one to fans. Star junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick could be called upon if needed.
“Minkah does takes reps with the punt return,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “Not something that he’s done since he’s been here, but I think he’s very capable of doing.”
Diggs has the most returns this season, returning 10 for 86 yards, including a long of 21 yards. Riggs has returned eight punts for 46 yards, including a long of 16. Along with Marks, those are the only three players to have returned a punt this season (although running back Damien Harris is credited with 19 yards due to his blocked punt against Florida State in the season-opener).
Saban and his coaching staff, including special teams coordinator Joe Pannunzio, will work the troubled area this week. One thing is for certain, Saban remains confident in all three punt returners.
“I think what we’ll do at that position is evaluate this week,” Saban said. “All three guys are very capable. Trevon Diggs did a good job of doing it for a long time. Ruggs is very explosive. But the thing about it is is when guys sort of don’t have success, what is their confidence level? How comfortable are they? Judgment is really important and ball security is important. Xavier is very explosive. Made a great return in the game Saturday, but ball security is also very important.
“We’re going to evaluate that through the course of the week and sort of try to figure out who can do the best job there and certainly put that person in there to do it when we come to the next game.”
Reach Aaron Suttles at email@example.com or at 205-722-0229.