Special teams are a critical and often overlooked third facet of the game of football. Though much of the focus goes on offensive and defensive output, special teams can often decide games and are very important for a team to take seriously. Alabama Football is no exception, and the program has clearly made special teams a priority in 2023.
It could be argued that special teams, at least in part, cost Alabama a spot in the 2022 College Football Playoff. Bama’s loss at Tennessee was heavily influenced by special teams errors on the part of the Crimson Tide.
A second quarter special teams turnover by way of a muffed punt allowed the Vols to take their biggest lead of the game at 28-10. Later, a rare Will Reichard missed field goal with just 15 seconds left ultimately doomed the Tide in Knoxville.
In 2023, Bama has seemingly put a much bigger emphasis on special teams. It has been more disciplined across all units, and has mostly executed well.
Alabama Football Special Teams: The Good
Kicker Will Reichard and punter James Burnip lead the group, and have both been lights out. Reichard recently became the SEC’s all-time leading scorer, and is well on his way to a Lou Groza Award-winning season. He has been arguably the best kicker in college football, and even impressed as an emergency punter when Burnip suffered a minor injury.
Burnip has been a field position weapon in his own right, averaging 48.9 yards per punt and pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line 11 times. Junior long snapper Kneeland Hibbett always performs his job without drama and deserves a mention as well.
Additionally, the kick coverage units for Alabama Football have been much more physical and aggressive in 2023 than they had been in the previous two or three years. We have already seen big hits on kick coverage from guys like Quandarrius Robinson, Justin Jefferson, and even running back Jam Miller.
Lastly, Bama has shown the ability to make game-changing plays on special teams. It has already blocked a punt (Ja’Corey Brooks vs Ole Miss) and a field goal (Chris Braswell vs Texas A&M) in SEC play this season.
Alabama Football Special Teams: The Bad
Bama hasn’t always been perfect on special teams. For one, Kool-Aid McKinstry hasn’t quite lived up to his billing as an All-American punt returner. McKinstry looked shaky and indecisive early in the season, which led to at least two muffed punts. Since then, he has been overly cautious and hesitant to field anything, which also doesn’t help the Tide.
In Bama’s latest game, Arkansas punter Max Fletcher pinned the Tide inside the 20-yard line four different times because McKinstry refused to fair catch a punt. To his credit, he is still electric when he does get a chance for a return, but he has mostly been a non-factor as a return man.
McKinstry should also get credit for easily recovering a Texas A&M onside kick to effectively end that game in College Station.
Costly penalties have plagued the Alabama special teams units this season. Special teams are fast-paced and hectic, so the occasional penalty is inevitable. Still, infractions that take points off the board are back-breakers. Through the first half of the season, Bama has already had two touchdowns erased due to special teams penalties.
Terrion Arnold ran a kickoff all the way back against USF, but a holding call negated the score. Chris Braswell scooped up his own blocked field goal against Texas A&M and sprinted to the end zone, but a personal foul on Dallas Turner way behind the play cost Bama the touchdown. The Tide would do well to play with a little more discipline on special teams.
While there has been good and bad for the Alabama Football special teams this year, there hasn’t been much ugly. The Crimson Tide has avoided disastrous mistakes on special teams and has not given up a special teams touchdown.
Special teams involve some of the most random and unpredictable plays in sports, so anything can happen. However, as I have said since the preseason, I am confident in the Tide if a game is to be decided by special teams.