With JoJo Earle out, who are Alabama football's top returner candidates? What Nick Saban said

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Alabama football isn't just losing a receiver for the start of the season with JoJo Earle's injury. With his absence, the Crimson Tide is also losing one of its top options at punt returner. 

Earle, who Saban said Wednesday is expected to miss six to eight weeks with a foot fracture, was a member of the All-SEC freshmen team in 2021 in the returner spot. 

He fielded the most punts of any Crimson Tide player in 2021 with 16 and 88 yards as a result. Earle's longest return went for 29 yards. 

Slade Bolden, who's now in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, was right behind him with 15 returns. Bolden, however, had more yardage with 99.

Yardage won't be the primary focus for whoever fields punts for the Crimson Tide to start the fall, though. 

"The number one important thing on punt return is possession of the ball," Saban said. "So, we’d like to get a first down and average over 10 yards a punt return, that’s great for field position, but possession of the ball has to be the most important thing, so the guy that’s going to be the most consistent fielder is going to be the guy who has the opportunity to do it until JoJo gets back." 

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Saban said Earle had made significant improvements in judgment and fielding the ball. 

Who might replace Earle until he is healthy? Saban said sophomore cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry has returned punts. Georgia transfer receiver Jermaine Burton has, too. 

Or perhaps Alabama turns to another option Saban didn't name Wednesday. 

Earle isn't the only player back on the roster who returned a punt in 2021. Ja'Corey Brooks and Christian Leary are credited in the stats book with bringing back one punt each as well. 

Alabama not only must replace a punt returner but also a kick returner. Jameson Williams, whom the Detroit Lions drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft, took back 10 kicks in 2021. He averaged 35.20 yards per return and scored twice. 

Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs is the frontrunner to replace Williams through the first week of camp. 

"Jahmyr has done a really good job as a kickoff returner," Saban said. "I think we’re trying to develop depth behind him." 

As a kick returner in 2021, Gibbs finished with 23 returns, 589 yards and one touchdown. 

Nick Kelly covers Alabama football and men's basketball for The Tuscaloosa News, part of the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at nkelly@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly