Alabama Football: Special Teams should be a strength in 2023

Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports /

Special teams can win or lose games, and make or break seasons. Alabama football has experienced both as a result of its special teams units, which should be among the most reliable in the country in 2023.

For starters, Alabama returns veteran kicker Will Reichard for his fifth season. Reichard broke out in the Crimson Tide’s 2020 national championship season, which saw him become a full-time starter at placekicker. He completed a perfect season (14-14 field goals, 84-84 extra points), and has been one of the best kickers in the nation ever since. Reichard has gone 62-75 on career field goal attempts, and hit several big kicks.

Alabama football’s all-time leading scorer will return for one more season, and should be a stable option for a Bama team that is breaking in a new quarterback on offense.

Alabama also expects to bring back punter James Burnip and long snapper Kneeland Hibbett. Both Burnip and Hibbett will enter their third year as starters at their respective positions, and have been solid and consistent players.

Burnip averaged over 42 yards per boot in 2022. He should continue to improve as a punter, helping the Crimson Tide to pin its opponents deep, limit return yardage, and win field position battles.

Hibbett may go overlooked, but the importance of returning a third-year long snapper, along with the kicker and punter, cannot be overstated. Hibbett’s presence should go a long way towards helping the chemistry and camaraderie of the kicking units.

Lastly, Alabama has the luxury of having Kool-Aid McKinstry return punts for one more season. McKinstry figures to enter his draft eligible junior season as one of the best cornerbacks in the country, and will be a leader on the Crimson Tide defense.

He also doubles as an electrifying punt returner. McKinstry got an opportunity to return punts when Jojo Earle went down with an injury in 2022 fall camp, and never relinquished the role. He racked up 332 punt return yards and a 15.8 yards-per-return average, despite opposing punting units actively avoiding him throughout the second half of the season.

Kool-Aid McKinstry ranked second in the nation and led the SEC in punt return yards, and ranked third in the nation and second in the SEC in punt return average. Perhaps more impressively, he racked up most of this yardage in the first five games of the season.

In the final eight games, McKinstry got limited return opportunities and totaled just 11 punt return yards. In the first five games, however, he had returns of 45, 44, 42, 40, 31, 29, and 27 yards. The one thing McKinstry never did was break one for a touchdown. It’s a pretty safe bet that he will run one back in 2023.

The only specialist role that Alabama football will need to replace is kick returner, a position that is becoming increasingly less important with fair catches and touchbacks growing more common. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs handled primary kick return duties for the Tide in 2022, and will depart for the NFL draft.

Returning receiver Ja’Corey Brooks had the second-most kickoff return opportunities. He could take over the job full-time in 2023. If Alabama decides to go in another direction, it will have plenty of speedy options to choose from.

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Alabama football is in a transition phase, replacing lots of key players on offense and defense and likely replacing both coordinators. The steadiness of these veteran specialists should help the team mightily.