Alabama Football: Will special teams once again be a strength?

Alabama v Arkansas
Alabama v Arkansas / Wesley Hitt/GettyImages

Alabama Football enjoyed plenty of success on special teams in 2023. Will the Crimson Tide continue to emphasize this underrated facet of the game under new coach Kalen DeBoer? It won’t be an easy task given some of the personnel departures it has endured this offseason.  

For starters, Bama loses kicker Will Reichard to graduation. Reichard is the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer and is generally considered to be the best kicker in school history. Redshirt freshman Conor Talty appears to be first in line to replace Reichard, and he will have big shoes to fill. 

In addition to Reichard, Alabama is parting ways with punt returners Kool-Aid McKinstry and Caleb Downs. McKinstry was one of the country’s top punt returners in 2022. When he struggled fielding punts in 2023, Downs came in as a true freshman and was very impactful at the position. Now that both have departed, with McKinstry turning pro and Downs transferring to Ohio State, Alabama Football will be in search of a new and reliable punt returner. 

Possible options include receiver Kendrick Law, who returned kickoffs for Alabama in 2023 and could continue that role as well, Washington transfer receiver Germie Bernard, who assumed some return responsibilities for the Huskies, and 5-star incoming freshman Ryan Williams, who will be one of the most dynamic athletes on the team. 

Alabama Football will return two of its key specialists in senior long snapper Kneeland Hibbett and redshirt senior punter James Burnip. Burnip also doubles as the holder on the field goal and extra point units.

Hibbett and Burnip are both among the best in the country at their respective positions. Their return will give Alabama some much-need continuity on special teams. James Burnip regularly flips the field and pins opponents deep in their own territory. Even better, his kicks have tremendous hangtime, are well-placed, and are rarely returnable. if Burnip can build on his 2023 season, he will continue to give the Tide a significant advantage in the field position game.  

It will be interesting to see how Bama’s special teams operate as a unit in 2024. Some of the Tide’s best special teams players, including running back Jam Miller and outside linebacker Quandarrius Robinson, will assume bigger roles on offense and defense this season. Coach Saban did not hesitate to play his best players on special teams; will Coach DeBoer do the same?

Alabama Football also loses special teams standouts like wide receiver Ja’Corey Brooks and linebacker Kendrick Blackshire to the transfer portal, but there is plenty of blue chip talent on the roster that will be seeking opportunities to get on the field. 

Special teams can make all the difference in a closely contested game. Alabama Football had the advantage in that aspect in most of its games in 2023. With an overhauled coaching staff and special teams coordinator Coleman Hutzler moving on to Mississippi State, it will be interesting to see how the Tide performs this fall.