Why Alabama Could Be Unstoppable in 2018 – Part Three – Special Teams and Intangibles
By: Larry Burton
We’ve looked into the offense and defensive units and certainly those are reasons to be hopeful for Alabama to finally put together another perfect season. As hard as it is to believe, there has only been one in the Saban era at the Capstone. But as you already know, sometimes that isn’t enough and teams have to rely on special teams and other things to win in close games.
So in part three, let’s look at the special teams and determine what intangibles could help the Tide be unstoppable next season.
Special Teams –
Long Snapper – Let’s start off with the best, Thomas Fletcher. Except for the kickoff, everything on the special team starts with the long snapper and no one has a better one than Alabama. Fletcher was the top rated long snapper coming out of high school and his freshman year last season certainly lived up to that billing. He was perfect on all opportunities without even one miscue resulting from an errant snap.
Recently he just broke the record for the longest snap, albeit unofficially, but that doesn’t really tell what his skill is all about. Game on the line, clock ticking down? Mr. Automatic is not going to give it any angst, he’ll just flip it back there, make his block and register another perfect play.
When everything starts out perfect, you have a better chance of finishing the play that way and Thomas Fletcher will always start his special team play perfectly. Alabama seems to have a knack of finding such men. The whole Saban era has been filled with long snappers with perfect records and Fletcher is well on his way to becoming the next to finish his career perfectly.
This may be the most underrated position on the team, but it’s so important.
Punter – Before you cry big crocodile tears over J.K. Scott leaving Tuscaloosa, you should see Skyler DeLong send one soaring. The number two punter coming out of high school was going to Tennessee before flipping to Alabama after receiving an offer from the coaching staff at a special teams camp in Tuscaloosa.
Even as a high schooler, his kickoffs were into the endzone with a good hang time and at the camps, he was punting with an average of over 50 yards with some of the best hang times in the country. He was always one of the best in the country in every camp.
In a pinch, he can even be a backup field goal kicker, folks this guy’s the real deal and while Scott leaves some big shoes to fill, DeLong has some mighty big feet.
Place Kicker – No one is exactly going to cry seeing Andy Pappanastos graduate and leave the team. He was not exactly the model for consistency and left Tide fans biting their nails when he had a kick to make. So it’s pretty easy to see that things can’t get much worse, but let’s not settle on low expectations, Joseph Bulovas will do just fine and at worst, be better. That is, if he wins the job this coming season.
The exciting news is that the Tide landed a one and done graduate transfer from Temple who looks to be the main man at this point in the way too early race to see whose leg will actually win the job. Austin Jones averages well over 80% in his past kicks and represents the first kicker since Jeremy Shelley to go over that 80% mark.
So at least for one year and maybe more, the kicking game just got better.
Place Kicking Holder – Last season J.K. Scott did the holding and except for a bauble in the Auburn game, was as solid a holder as you could have gotten. This season the holding job is up for grabs, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Tua Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts doing that job. That could also make opposing teams nervous having the fake always be a possibility. No matter who they choose, this position should be just fine.
Kick and Punt Returners – Let’s face it, last season the Tide sucked the big one on kickoff and punt returns. There wasn’t a real highlight moment all season long. It seems like a long time since Alabama had someone who was a real threat to take it to the house. Not only did they not do well, there were baubles on far too many punt return attempts.
The bad news here is that Saban looks at using most of the same names as last season to do these jobs again as in Trevon Diggs and Henry Ruggs III. So it won’t be worse and maybe it could be better. I’d like to see Saban shake things up a bit and try some of the speedy, shifty other guys, but time will tell.
New Special Teams Coach – For the first time in the Saban era, Alabama will have a coach fully dedicated to only coaching special teams and Jeff Banks is a great one to have doing that job. I can’t tell you how important it is to finally have a full time special teams coach and I can’t help but think that this will translate into a better special team unit top to bottom over last season.
Banks coached Texas A&M’s special teams as well as their tight ends for five years, but it was his special teams unit that made national highs. He did get the punt returns up to 2nd in the nation and did well at all special team units. This is a much bigger deal than you may think and with so many new comers taking important jobs, the timing was perfect to finally get a full time special team coach.
This is one of those big intangibles the headline talks about and could be one of the bigger ones.
New coaches – Bear Bryant had a special philosophy when it came to hiring staff. He wanted to hire men who were smarter than he was. He was quoted on more than one occasion saying, “Why would I hire someone that couldn’t come in here and teach these players I already knew myself. I always hire folks that are smarter than me.” Now while that was being kind and was certainly a bit of a stretch, like Bryant, Saban brings in coaches that can give something new to his team.
Karl Scott is coming in as the new defensive backs coach from Texas Tech where he had to take three freshmen into his starting defensive back duties and make it work. He did a great job of it and with Alabama having so many new faces in their defensive backfield, that experience will be a good thing to fall back on. Scott will bring some good ideas to build on the education they’ve already gotten while there.
Pete Golding also comes in to the Alabama staff. He’s a former safety himself and is another person with defensive back coaching experience. He’s coming from Texas-San Antonio where he was the defensive coordinator and his UTSA squad was a top 10 defensive unit in the nation. There’s a lot of experience at Alabama suddenly with a ton of defensive back experience at a time when they’ll need it the most.
Dan Enos is a former head coach for four seasons and was the Arkansas offensive coordinator that hung 473 yards of offense on Alabama, something that Saban never forgot. He was also a quarterback when Saban was head coach at Michigan State. So bringing him in to be the quarterback coach should help get Tua settled in just fine. He can talk to him quarterback to quarterback. That can only help Tua get to the next step in becoming the best he can be.
Josh Gattis is the new receivers coach and he also has the title of co-offensive coordinator. Last season, Mike Locksley was the receiver coach and boy did he do a good job integrating so many new faces into an established group. So while Locksley gets the big job this year as the new offensive coordinator, he laid a great groundwork for Gattis to build on.
Gattis was quite a steal from Penn State. He had been with James Franklin since his Vandy days and is an excellent recruiter as well as an outstanding coach. His work as receiver coach / passing game coordinator was simply outstanding.
These are three coaches either new or in a new position, Gattis, Enos and Locksley who are going to focus on boosting the passing game up. Given that it looks like Alabama has begun the Tua Tagovailoa era, they’ve put together a team of coaches to make sure that make sure the passing game is a major focus of the offense this season. In the past, Alabama used the a devastating running game to set up some passing yards. This season it could be the other way around. Saban didn’t put this group of coaches together will all their passing game background to keep things status quo. This is as major a change in overall philosophy as there has been in any Saban Alabama offense.
There is not a coach mentioned here that isn’t going to help make this team a better team and not a coach that was hired isn’t bringing fresh ideas to a group that needs it the most.
New Incoming Freshmen That Could Make a Difference – When you have a five star recruit, you have someone who would certainly see the playing field on most teams and may could see playing time even at Alabama. Patrick Surtain is one of those players at a position where the Tide will put a lot people in new starting roles and that’s the defensive backfield. Think a Minkah type guy here. At 6’2” and 185, he’s already big enough to be a safety yet fast enough to play corner. He’s the top defensive back in the country coming out of high school and Nick Saban’s still smiling for landing this plum player in a spot that always worries him.
What makes him even happier is that he also got three more four star defensive backs including Savion Smith also at 6’2” but at 193 pounds is another guy who make the rotation in his first year as could the others. Saban’s got the DB’s for the foreseeable future.
Michael Parker is a big 6’6” target at tight end and he’s going to be a star and he may get some time to shine this year. He’s the kind of big target that could give defenses fits trying to cover. Can you say just throw a jump ball?
We’ve already talked about the JUCO kicker coming in, but there’s also an athlete, who played QB who personally I’d love to see returning kicks and punts and that’s slippery Slade Bolden.
Yes there’s lots of other great players signed, but their at positions which may not have as big a need as the ones we mentioned. They may not get much playing this year except special teams, but they are going to fill needs in the years to come.
What all this means is that truly Alabama has all the pieces to make Alabama an unstoppable force in 2018. The only question is, can they put all those pieces together? I wouldn’t bet against it.
Larry has been published in almost every media outlet for college sports and now primarily writes here for Touchdown Alabama. Follow Larry on Twitter for inside thoughts and game time comments at https://twitter.com/LBSportswriter