- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It was a few days before the start of the season and AJ McCarron was asked whether he was still planning on being the holder on field goals and extra points. It seemed, after all, like a legitimate question to ask. As Alabama's starting quarterback, he had a higher calling than making sure the football was placed on the turf just so.
There surely was another less vital player who could perform what seemed to be a menial task, right?
"No, Coach knows I don't care," is all McCarron said. "That's what he asked me to do and I'm going to do it. I'm not bigger than anybody else."
McCarron, a fifth-year senior and a Heisman Trophy contender, has been a part of special teams for years now. But he's not the only All-SEC talent playing on a unit usually reserved for rookies and lifelong backups. C.J. Mosley, Alabama's All-American linebacker, covers punts, and T.J. Yeldon, UA's leading tailback, does the same. Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest, two starters on defense, made their bones on special teams.
They don't do it because they have to. They do it because there's pride involved. They do it because it's important.
"I used to look at it as one play," DePriest said. "It's one play, give it all you got for one play. You never know when you're going to be needed, and since special teams is a one play thing -- you run down there, do what you need to do and get off the field. And when the next special teams is up, you go out there and do it again."
Said Mosley: "We always treat special teams like a game-changing momentum changer."
Alabama's special teams play has been especially good this season, becoming arguably the most consistent part of the top-ranked Crimson Tide's game. Where the offense and defense have had their ups and downs, the third, lesser-known unit, has been steadily impressive, coming in eighth nationally in yards per punt (46.95) and yards per kickoff return (28.0). On kickoff coverage, Alabama is 20th nationally and second in the SEC, allowing an average of 17.73 yards per return.
Big plays have been a part of special teams, too. Sophomore linebacker Dillon Lee's blocked punt return for a touchdown against Colorado State marked the third special teams score and the fifth non-offensive touchdown of the year for Alabama, far outpacing any season in recent memory. Two interceptions have been taken to the house and return specialist Christion Jones already has a touchdown on a kickoff and a punt return.
"We practice every day, we focus on that," Sunseri said. "Coach Saban says to practice like you want to play and we hustle down field every day and want to make sure we don’t give up any plays in practice, because whatever you do in practice rolls over to the game. Doing those things right and getting full position is always huge."
There hasn't been a more overlooked part of Alabama's recent championship run than special teams. Year in and year out the play has been above average, thanks to rookies and veterans alike.
The way Alabama has recruited, hauling in top-three classes each year since 2008, there have been an abundance of four- and five-star talents ready to make a contribution right away. And rather than wait idly on the sidelines for a starting position to come open, they've turned to special teams. Derrick Henry, the No. 1 athlete in the 2013 class, is on kickoff coverage, along with four-star tailback Altee Tenpenny.
But the most impressive youngster has been Landon Collins, who came to Alabama as the No. 1 safety in the country a year ago. He has developed into a tackling machine on kickoff and punt coverage, earning praise from coaches and teammates alike.
"He was a monster," punter Cody Mandell said. "He was like a human cannonball, to be honest with you."
"You see him, he's crazy," safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. "He's a great player, great tackler. He gets down field and makes big plays."
Collins had a chance to start alongside Clinton-Dix at strong safety this season, but ultimately lost the job to the more veteran option in Sunseri. Instead of sulking, Collins has continued to give everything he has to special teams. As starting cornerback Deion Belue put it, "The only thing you can expect from him is 110 percent."
"A killer mindset," Collins said of how he approaches special teams. "It's a dog eat dog world, I say to myself. I want to make any play possible, regardless of the fact of what I'm doing."
And that, in a nutshell, explains why Alabama is so good on a unit that's so often overlooked. All-Americans and five-star talents don't view special teams as a burden, but rather as an opportunity. When Collins shoots downfield and blows up return men like a heat-seeking missile, it draws as big a celebration as any from the sidelines.
Even a veteran quarterback like McCarron understands the importance of special teams. He doesn't have to hold Cade Foster's kicks. No one would second guess a player of his stature staying on the sidelines for extra points and field goals. But McCarron doesn't shy away from the extra work and neither do his teammates.
"He's the best there is," said UA kicker Cade Foster. "For him to be able to drive us down there and get us in position and still be able to focus on a hold blows my mind. Really thankful that he can do it because I wouldn't want anyone else."
7dEdward Aschoff and Alex Scarborough