TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If there was anything lacking in the Crimson Tide's ride to a 14th national championship last season, it was their less-than-spectacular special teams play.
Alabama ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in punting and kicking in 2011-12. Jeremy Shelley and Cade Foster were shaky on field goal attempts and Cody Mandell failed to clear 40 yards per punt, coming in last among SEC West punters.
But after a solid showing in the BCS National Championship and an offseason of competition, it appears the special teams are, well, more special this season.
Against Michigan, Foster hit his first 50-plus yard field goal since the 2010-11 season. He was 1-for-2 against the Wolverines, his miss sailing just left from 52 yards. Alabama was just 4-for-15 from 40 yards or longer last season.
Coach Nick Saban said he's been pleased with the progress Foster has made as a long-range specialist and hoped that Saturday night's performance would be a boost of confidence for him.
"Anytime you make a 51-yard field goal that’s probably good for a guy," Saban said. "The important thing for Cade is, he’s in a difficult circumstance because he only kicks the long ones. So his, you know, sort of, make percentage may not be as good as somebody else’s. But he’s also taking the more difficult shots. So he’s got to stay focused on: ‘This is how I would kick a short one; I want to execute the same way.’ He seems to be able to do that a little better and has been really consistent in practice."
Shelley, the short-yardage specialist, nailed a 22-yard field goal in his lone attempt.
Mandell also came out with a bang, or a boom as it were, in Texas. The Lafayette, La., native came through for the Tide, averaging 47 yards on his four punts inside the dome at Cowboys Stadium -- and pinning Michigan inside the 10-yard line twice.
Mandell said this season's improvement can be traced back to work during the offseason, making trips to Wisconsin and Dallas for punting instruction. There, he learned to drop the ball later and to stay "smooth with the punt," as he put it.
"Over the offseason I worked really hard on technique and form, and getting all the little things right," Mandell said. "I’m just working on a little bit every day to get a little bit better. I worked with a lot of coaches this summer to work on my technique, and my technique showed in the game."
Like Foster, Saban said Mandell's success has been built on good habits learned during practice.
"Cody's been practicing very, very well," Saban said. "He's been very consistent and he's improved his technique. He's worked hard, he's matured, he's stayed focused on what he's doing. He's punted better in practice, he punted better in the game."