Two positions in college football live under a microscope, quarterback and specialist.
One has three opportunities to generate points, while the other gets one shot to carve a niche on a team. At Alabama, kickers, punters and long snappers don’t practice with everyone else.
In fact, these three positions work together on a separate field, to train on conditioning, chemistry and consistency. Specialists, like other positions, lift weights, watch game film and anticipate for their moment to shine. Former Alabama standout P.J. Fitzgerald got his moment in 2009.
Fitzgerald, a native of Coral Springs, Fla., enrolled at Alabama as a freshman in 2005. He redshirted his freshman season under head coach Mike Shula, and won the job in 2006.
He wasn’t the biggest guy (5-foot-11) and didn’t have the strongest leg; however, Fitzgerald was consistent. He improved his punting average each season from 38.2 yards as a redshirt freshman to 42.0 yards as senior in 2009. Fitzgerald earned the respect of his teammates, and was a strong candidate for the Ray Guy Award (nation’s top punter) in 2009.
Fitzgerald was recruited by Shula, but current Alabama head coach Nick Saban had a hand in molding him. He said it was Shula’s stance on Christianity that won his mother to Alabama.
“Coach Shula is awesome. He is an awesome guy,” Fitzgerald said. “My family actually went to his house during my official visit to Alabama and ate FireHouse Subs with his family.”
“Coach Shula was very hands-on. He and his staff were very nice. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out for him, except for the 2005 season, which was the year I redshirted where we went 10-2.”
Fitzgerald equates Saban to a CEO of a multi-billion dollar business. He said that Saban has the leadership abilities to make everyone beneath him and even himself better every day.
“He [Coach Saban] expects you to get better every single day,” Fitzgerald said. “And if you don’t, he will let you know. Having that type of figure head above you, talking to you and putting (good) pressure on you because he wants you to succeed was huge for me.”
Bobby Williams, special teams and tight ends coach, will enter his eighth season at Alabama this fall. He was the third coach to train Fitzgerald. He said Williams knew how to motivate.
“Coach Williams’s pedigree speaks for itself,” Fitzgerald said. “After Saban left Michigan State, it named Coach Williams as head coach. So having that previous head coaching experience really falls in line with special teams coordinators. Special teams coordinators are pretty much junior head coaches. Special teams coordinators have to deal with everybody.”
“Coach Williams can very chill at times, but he was also aggressive. He knows what buttons to push, a lot like Coach Saban. I think the world of Coach Williams.”
Numerous highlight moments occurred in Alabama’s 2009 national championship run. Fitzgerald remembers two moments in particular, one was a match against and old nemesis.
“I come from Florida. I’m a South Florida boy,” Fitzgerald said. “My wife (girlfriend then), my cousin and a lot of my friends went to Florida. When we lost to Florida in ’08, it put a chip on my shoulder because they was talking trash. I specifically remember looking over across the field and seeing Brandon Spikes jumping, pointing at us and laughing.”
“The 2009 rematch against Florida was huge for me. My wife said she would cheer for Alabama because it was my final game. Being in the Georgia Dome and having that chip on our shoulder from a year before was important. I remember we were beating them bad in the third quarter, and I looked over at Leigh Tiffin and said ‘bro, we are going to the national title game.'”
Fitzgerald recorded a critical tackle on Florida’s return man Brandon James in the third quarter of the 2009 Southeastern Conference Championship Game. His effort saved a touchdown.
Fitzgerald and Shula share one thing in common. Both played with two of the best kickers in Alabama history. Van Tiffin was a legend in the 1980s, while his son Leigh was huge in 2009.
Fitzgerald discussed his relationship with Leigh Tiffin. He said Tiffin never wanted to be compared to his father. According to Fitzgerald, Tiffin had to grow into his own man.
“The first time I met Leigh, it was his official visit to Alabama and I was his host,” Fitzgerald said. “We were talking and I heard how his dad was a legend during my first year. I brought into the conversation and he quickly rolled his eyes and said ‘if I come here I don’t want to be compared to my dad. I know will, but I want to be known as Leigh Tiffin, not Van Tiffin.'”
Fitzgerald said Tiffin made a name for himself and was able to put his stamp on Alabama’s football legacy. He said the 2006 season really made Tiffin stronger mentally and physically.
“When he came in, he looked like a 12-year-old as a freshman,” Fitzgerald said. “After 2007, he matured a whole lot and really began to look like a man. We both hit the weight room together and the rest is history. He and his wife have another Tiffin. They call him mini-Van.”
P.J. Fitzgerald and Cody Mandell had to grow into becoming consistent.
Sophomore punter JK Scott took the college football world by storm last season as a freshman, averaging 48 yards per boot. Fitzgerald said Scott is truly the definition of “chill.”
“Seeing him [Scott] get all the accolades and respect that he deserves is awesome,” Fitzgerald. “I’ve spoken to him and he is down to earth and extremely chill. You take Bobby Williams on a chill day and multiply by 10, you will get JK Scott. And that’s huge.”
Alabama’s specialists earned the respect of the team and coaching staff in 2009.
“With other positions, they have three downs. Kicker, punters and snappers have one down,” Fitzgerald said. “Every fourth down is our time to shine. If we screw up, we have to wait until another fourth down. Leigh Tiffin, myself and Brian Selman (long snapper) had the same regiment every day during our senior year and we excelled at it.”
Fitzgerald said special teams comes down to each person doing their job.
“Under coach Shula, it was all zone protection where punting was concerned,” Fitzgerald said. “As a right-footed punter, it’s easier to go right, but there is a mentally aspect in going left. I really struggled going left at first, but during the summer (2008), I practiced on punting left.”
Fitzgerald said his forte in punting was putting the ball outside the numbers.
As far as 2015 is concerned, Fitzgerald likes what Alabama will put on the field.
“This year’s team kind of similars the 2009 team,” Fitzgerald said. “We have great pieces on offense, great pieces on defenses, great pieces on special teams. The biggest question is quarterback play. Blake Sims did a great job last year. He came in and blew everyone away.”
Fitzgerald said the sky is the limit for this year’s Alabama team.
Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama Magazine, Pick Six Previews and SB Nation. You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @ESPN_Future.