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Special teams emerged as headline behind Alabama’s victory over ULM

Alabama CB Kool-Aid McKinstry (#1) runs back a punt versus ULM
Photo comes via SEC Media Portal

Special teams can be the forgotten member of football’s three phases.

During his tenure as Alabama’s head coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant emphasized special teams. The Crimson Tide started its first two matchups of the season without a special teams touchdown, but it changed against Louisiana-Monroe. Will Reichard and James Burnip excelled in the kicking game; however, the Tide broke a 75-year-old record for punt return yards in school history.

RELATED: Alabama vs. ULM Photo Gallery

Alabama totaled 262 return yards versus the Warhawks in a 63-7 victory. Kool-Aid McKinstry, a sophomore, averaged 27 yards per punt return. The second-year cornerback kept the Crimson Tide’s offense in great field position. He nearly broke a couple of returns for touchdowns on five tries, but McKinstry had a long one of 44 yards. Brian Branch, a junior defensive back, recorded his first career touchdown for Alabama. He took a punt 68 yards for a score in the fourth quarter and got mobbed by teammates.

Ja’Corey Brooks, a sophomore receiver, had his second career blocked punt. He got the block at the right angle in the opening quarter, and Malachi Moore returned it for a 3-yard touchdown. Moore, a junior defensive back, got his first score since 2020.

He returned a fumble for a 28-yard touchdown against Tennessee as a freshman. The previous record for punt return yards in a game for the Tide was 204 on Nov. 22, 1947, versus LSU. After the game, Nick Saban told reporters he challenged the team to ‘make special teams an advantage.’ Two of Alabama’s three non-offensive scores came from the third aspect of football.

“When you get 262 yards, block a punt, and score a touchdown, that’s good stuff,” Saban said about Alabama’s performance on special teams. “To this point in the season, and I challenged the guys, we had not made one explosive play on special teams. I challenged the players to do a better job of executing. Today, our execution was better.”

McKinstry, a former five-star in the 2021 class, wants to do anything to help the team win. He is not the primary punt returner, but the Alabama native looked great. McKinstry thanked his teammates, but he discussed the importance of special teams.

RELATED: Alabama players react to Will Anderson’s first career pick-six versus ULM

“Special teams bring a lot to the game,” he said. “We look at special teams no different than offense and defense. We understand the energy that comes from special teams leads to offense and defense. It brings a lot of energy.”

Roydell Williams, a junior running back, had a good series where he had five carries. He totaled 57 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Warhawks, but he also plays on special teams. Williams spoke about what he enjoys about it.

“Special teams have to bring it every play,” he said. “That’s where it starts. We have to be physical on all aspects of special teams, and it leads to our offense and defense playing physical. That is how we came out with the win.”

Coach Saban said he saw elements of the Alabama standard versus ULM. He wants to continue building off special teams and all aspects as a whole for Southeastern Conference opponents. The Tide will face Vanderbilt next Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

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Stephen M. Smith is the managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @CoachingMSmith. 

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