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Special Teams Could Carry 'Bama To Title

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Vinnie Sunseri, a well-known starter on defense, has played a key special teams role for Alabama this season. Sunseri has made 17 total tackles, nine on special teams. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images.
Vinnie Sunseri, a well-known starter on defense, has played a key special teams role for Alabama this season. Sunseri has made 17 total tackles, nine on special teams. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images.

Through five games, No. 1 ranked Alabama's (5-0, 2-0) special teams have been the most consistent unit for the Tide.

Big plays have been a signature as Christion Jones has returned a punt (72 yards) and a kickoff (94 yards) for a touchdown. He leads Alabama in all-purpose yards with 121 yards per game. Dillon Lee scooped up a blocked punt by Kenyan Drake against Colorado State and scored.

Punter Cody Mandell, criticized severely two seasons ago, is averaging an impressive 46.7 yards per punt on 23 punts. Cade Foster has made 5 of 6 field goals. Landon Collins has been a head-hunter on special teams, making multiple crowd-pleasing hits this season and has 21 total tackles, playing in place of suspended safety HaHa Clinton-Dix on defense.

Alabama has scored 13 special teams touchdowns during the Saban era and three this season.

Where the offense and defense have been inconsistent, special teams have been steadily impressive, averaging 24 yards per kickoff return. On kickoff coverage, Alabama is 20th nationally and second in the SEC, allowing 17.7 yards per return.

Special Teams Filled With Veterans

Special teams are not glamorous. Players cover kicks for about 10 seconds, risking injury during football’s most explosive play, and then go sit on the bench for long periods of time. Some football coaches talk about the importance of special teams and how they can change the momentum of a game instantly in their weekly teleconference. Then they devote little time in practice working on the fundamentals.  

Alabama coach Nick Saban decided early in his coaching career to put more emphasis on special teams. The dividends have paid off this season.

Special teams are how most freshman and sophomores earn their stripes on a team (and most rookies in the NFL who aren't top draft picks). Some players believe if they perform well on special teams, it will lead to a starting position sooner or later. However, at Alabama a lot of freshmen, sophomores or backups can’t get on the special teams roster because All-American players or experienced junior and seniors are filling those roles.

AJ McCarron, a fifth-year senior and a Heisman Trophy contender, has been holding for field goals and extra points for years. C.J. Mosley, Alabama's All-American linebacker, and T.J. Yeldon, All-SEC running back, cover punts. Two defensive starters in Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest made their reputations by playing with reckless abandon covering kickoffs and punts.

According to Alex Scarborough of Tidesports.com, Mosley and DePriest look at being a member of the special teams units as an honor.

"We always treat special teams like a game-changing momentum changer," Mosley said.

DePriest, a sophomore who missed half of spring practice with a broken foot, puts the meaning of special teams in perspective.

"I used to look at it as one play," DePriest said. "It's one play, give it all you got for one play. You never know when you're going to be needed, and since special teams is a one-play thing, you run down there, do what you need to do and get off the field. And when the next special teams are up, you go out there and do it again."

McCarron has an even more refreshing attitude about special teams.

"That's what he (Saban) asked me to do and I'm going to do it,” McCarron said. “I'm not bigger than anybody else."

Mandell Became An Asset

Cody Mandell, ridiculed for his lack of consistency two years ago, has improved to become one of the most consistent punters in the nation. The senior from Lafayette, La., currently ranks third in the SEC in yards per punt (46.7). Two of his punts have been downed inside the 1-yard line in the last two games. Collins downed a punt near the goal line against Ole Miss that led to a safety as Mosley met Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace on a quarterback draw in the end zone the next play. 

Year Punt Avg. Net Avg. Inside 20 50+ Yds.
2011 39.3 36.5 11 N/A
2012 44.3 39.5 17 12
2013 46.7 40.6 8 8

According to AL.com, Saban and special teams coach Bobby Williams watched film of Mandell during the offseason and discovered Mandell does a better job when he kicks the ball to the left instead of the right side of the field.

“Cody has done a better job of placing the ball for us,” Saban said. “We used to kick the ball more to the right.  We found out in the offseason that he kicks it better to the left. So we’ve sort of started changing our coverage unit, coverage pattern, so that we can kick the ball to the left. And that’s worked out well for us so far.”

According to Cliff Kirkpatrick of the Montgomery Advertiser, Mandell has to remind himself not to be selfish when he’s kicking. Many kickers purposely try to kick the ball as hard as possible. Mandell has figured out he wants to match distance with hang time.

“Against Virginia Tech (Alabama won 35-10), I had a 61-yard punt with a hang-time of 5.09 seconds,” Mandell said. “It was a great punt, but to be honest it’s not my favorite punt I’ve ever hit because it was returned farther than I’ve ever had one returned on me."

At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Mandell is an asset as he makes about a half-dozen tackles per year on punt coverage.

Foster: Another Redemption Story

Nov, 5, 2011 is a night Cade Foster would like to forget.  He and kicker Jeremy Shelley combined to miss four field goals (Foster missed three) in the Crimson Tide's 9-6 overtime loss to LSU. Last season, Bobby Williams used two kickers. Shelley attempted short field goals and Foster long field goals.

Flash forward to Sept. 28, 2013. Foster kicked three field goals, including a 53-yard career best to stake Alabama to a 9-0 halftime lead as the Tide went on to beat Ole Miss 25-0.

"It felt great. Really good," Foster said. "(Long snapper) Cole Mazza did a great job for us. He's right on point. AJ (McCarron) had a perfect hold and the operation felt really smooth and I was pleased with it. It felt like it was right down the middle.”

In his first season as the Tide's full-time starting kicker, Foster's only field goal miss was a 46-yard attempt last week against Colorado State. He has also made 22-of-22 extra points.

Foster has just four touchbacks this season. But in this age of kicking the ball into the stands, Foster plans it that way. Of the 22 kickoffs that haven't gone for touchbacks, only five have been returned past the 25-yard line. On average, opponents are starting their possessions after kickoffs on the 21-yard line. Eleven of Alabama's 22 kickoffs that didn't result in a touchback have pinned the opponent inside its own 20-yard line.

Foster doesn’t shy away from contact. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, the former middle linebacker from Southlake, Texas, frequently competes with lineman in bench-press competitions. He makes about a dozen tackles per season.

Mazza A First For Saban

Most coaches are reticent to award scholarships to kickers. They are even more leery of giving scholarships to long snappers. However, Saban believes long snappers are as much a part of the success of special teams as any position. Carson Tinker was Alabama’s long snapper for three seasons.

Cole Mazza was a verbal commitment to UCLA for several months. The Bakersfield, Calif., native thought he wanted to stay home and be a part of Jim Mora Jr.’s continued reclamation of UCLA’s football program. Mazza thought he would have to walk on at Alabama because Saban had never offered a scholarship to a long snapper. However, Bobby Williams was impressed with Mazza’s performance during summer camp in 2012. Alabama was able to work out the numbers in the 25-scholarship limit and offered Mazza a scholarship in January. He quickly accepted.

Mazza is a fast learner. One of the few mistakes he has make this season was against Ole Miss with an errant snap to Mandell on Alabama’s 5-yard line. Mandell jumped and make a tremendous save of the snap and still got off a 47-yard punt. Mandell quickly sought out Mazza to counsel him on the sidelines.

“I went over there (sidelines) and encouraged him after the play,” Mandell said. “He’s the best snapper in the country, I know he is, out of any college football team in the country. Cole did a great job snapping tonight except for that first one.”

Jones Is SEC's Best Returner

The returns have played a big role in the Tide’s success thanks to Christion Jones. He leads the SEC in punt returns with an 11.2-yard average, including a 72-yard touchdown, and tops the conference in kickoff returns with a 29.8-yard average, including a 94-yard touchdown. Dee Hart is second in punt return yardage, accumulating 55 yards (18.3 yards per return), including a 37-yard return against Georgia State.

Alabama's Next Star Safety Turning Heads On Kick Coverage

No question the most impressive player on kickoff coverage has been former five-star prospect Landon Collins from Geismar, La.

Collins came to Alabama as the No. 1 safety in the country in 2012. He has 21 total tackles on the season, primarily on kickoff coverage. According to AL.com, coaches and players have been dazzled with Collins' bone-jarring tackles.

"He has been a monster on special teams," Mandell said. "He was like a human cannonball, to be honest with you."

"You see him, he's crazy," safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. "He's a great player, great tackler. He gets down field and makes big plays."

Even though Collins lost the starting job to Sunseri in summer camp, Collins realized he could make a major impact on kickoff coverage.

"It’s a killer mindset," Collins explained. "It's a dog-eat-dog world, I say to myself. I want to make any play possible, regardless of the fact of what I'm doing."

Savvy veterans or hungry newcomers realize they can break into the starting lineup if they make an impact on special teams. Saban realizes the unit has played a major role in Alabama beginning the season 5-0.  

"I think we've done a better job in our coverage units this year, no doubt," Saban said. "Kickoff coverage has been really good. We've got really good team speed on that unit. They get down the field. They've got a lot of pride in what they do."