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Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Forecasting the Tide: Special teams

By Alex Scarborough

Editor’s note: Every Tuesday and Thursday between now and national signing day, TideNation will review each position and look at who figures to start, who could rise up the depth chart and who might be on the way. Today we’ll look at the specialists. 

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Jan. 10 marked the end of an illustrious career for former Alabama long snapper Carson Tinker. The leader and face of the Crimson Tide's specialists departed Tuscaloosa with three national championships in tow and a healthy following of fans.

Cade Foster
Cade Foster might be leaned on at the start of next season.
Now, Alabama must move on. Tinker and kicker Jeremy Shelley won't be on campus when spring practice begins in March. Shelley developed into a rock-solid place kicker during his senior season. He failed to miss a single kick all year -- a perfect 69-for-69 on extra points and an unblemished 11-for-11 on field goal attempts. It's difficult to replace that kind of production.

While Alabama improved mightily in the area of special teams this past season, the unit was not without its blemishes. Cade Foster showed he's a capable long-range place kicker who can put the ball through the end zone on kickoffs, but there were also stretches where he went widely unused. He didn't make a single field goal after Week 4. Though he wasn't called on that often (he went 0-for-3 from Week 5 on), going that many months without seeing the football go through the uprights can toy with a kicker's confidence.

Punter Cody Mandell improved tremendously in the area of distance and accuracy, but punt return specialists Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones struggled to field the ball at times, making ill-advised returns and fumbles that enraged the coaching staff.

Kick and punt return coverage was solid, yet unspectacular. Rest assured the Missouri kick return for a touchdown will be replayed many times over the offseason.

Special teams coach Bobby Williams and head coach Nick Saban will be faced with questions during spring and fall camp that go beyond replacing Tinker and Shelley. The two, along with others, will attempt to build on the success of 2012 and solidify the aforementioned weak spots.

Battling for No. 1: Foster will enter camp as the incumbent place kicker in charge of kickoffs and long-range field goals. Whether he can open up his game to include field goal attempts inside of 40 yards remains to be seen. Adam Griffith, the No. 7 kicker in the 2012 class, could challenge for playing time after redshirting this past season.

Mandell is ripe for a strong senior campaign, but the players in charge of returning punts is another question altogether. Christion Jones and Cyrus Jones could very well be on the hot seat after shaky seasons in 2012. A platoon of the two could continue, though coaches have seemed insistent that it's Christion Jones' job to lose.

The only position we can say with near certainty that is ready to go to a rookie is the job of long snapper. With Tinker and his backup Kelly Johnson both gone, the duty of delivering the ball to place-holder AJ McCarron will likely fall to true freshman commitment Cole Mazza. The No. 3-ranked long snapper was courted by UCLA, Utah and Washington State, but chose Alabama after Saban offered his first-ever scholarship to a player at his position.

Strength in numbers: It's simply too difficult to predict who will stay on the coverage teams for punt and kick returns next season. Year over year, the turnover is significant as rookies become starters and transition out of special teams. We can, however, point out that true freshmen Reggie Ragland, Tyler Hayes and Landon Collins distinguished themselves throughout this past season. Like Vinnie Sunseri and Trey DePriest before them, the trio of talented defensive players carved out a reputation as solid special teams contributors which will only endear themselves more to their respective position coaches as they battle for more playing time on defense.

Help on the way: Yes, T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake carried the ball with a great deal of success during their rookie seasons, but did you notice the job they did contributing on special teams? Rookies under Saban don't get a play off, even if they run for more than 1,000 yards as the No. 2 tailback. We very well could see the same type of all-around production from the 2013 class from the likes of Derrick Henry, Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny. There are only so many carries to go around and the staff will unlikely redshirt them all. Keep an eye on commitment ArDarius Stewart and Anthony Averett as both athletes fit the bill as return specialists. Alvin Kamara, a four-star running back who is looking closely at Georgia and Alabama, has the tools to make an impact in the return game as well.