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Friday, October 5, 2012
Making the grade: Special teams

By Alex Scarborough

Christion Jones
Christion Jones' kickoff return touchdown against Mississippi was another example of the resurgence Alabama has seen in its special teams thus far.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- With Alabama on the bye week, it's time to take a breather and examine how well the Crimson Tide have played through the first five games of the season. Their record and ranking are both perfect, but there's still room for improvement.

Today, TideNation will grade the defense and special teams. Yesterday we tackled the offense.

FIELD GOALS
The breakdown: Who would have thought six months ago that the kicking game would be one of Alabama's strengths in 2012? Don't everyone raise your hands at once.

After a rocky 2011 campaign, both Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley have come out this season with a bang. It took exactly one game for Foster to convert on more field goals of 50-plus yards than he did a year ago. So far this season, he's made 3-of-5 from that distance.

Shelley's been no slouch either, building off his five field goal performance against LSU in the national championship game. So far, he's a perfect 7-for-7 on field goal attempts this season.

What they're saying: "I think we're on a roll. Jeremy Shelley answered the bell last week with four field goals. That's incredible. He played great. I feel like the leadership is coming through with the specialist unit." -- Foster

The bottom line: There's been perhaps no unit on the team more improved that the field goal kickers. Grade: A+

PUNTING
The breakdown: Punters do everything quietly, so it's no wonder that Cody Mandell's lackluster 2011 season flew under the radar. He was the only punter in the SEC West to average less than 40 yards per punt.

This season, he's averaged 42.3 yards every time he boots the ball. And not only that, he's been more accurate, too. He's placed five punts inside the 20-yard line in five games. He accomplished that feat 11 times in 13 games last season.

What they're saying: "“I think on our unit we feed off each other’s energy. One thing we tell each other is that when we go into something the other players on that unit are going to be tired, but we have to bring a certain amount of energy to it and make sure that they feed off of us." -- Mandell

The bottom line: Mandell's resurgence hasn't been a hot topic, but the boon he's been in terms of field position is invaluable. That said, his play has been a tad inconsistent. Grade: B

RETURN/COVERAGE
The breakdown: Alabama coach Nick Saban said the young guys have looked like a "rat trap" out there on special teams, meaning that many of the players didn't know exactly what they were doing.

"Rather than just go play fast like a horse with blinders, whether you're playing on special teams, whether you're carrying the ball, no matter what you're doing. That's the biggest challenge," Saban said. "I had a fit about that today in the special teams meeting, not just [Kenyan Drake] but just all the young guys. We're coaching one thing and they're doing something else."

Saban may not be happy with the rookies on special teams, but the production as a whole hasn't been half bad. Alabama's allowing just 7 yards per punt return, 19.81 per kickoff return and is fourth in the country in kickoff return average.

Christion Jones has been a standout in the return game, taking a kickoff from Ole Miss 99 yards for the score last weekend, ending a drought of games without a kickoff return for a touchdown that went back to September 2010.

What they're saying: "The first thought is to try to run as fast as [Jones] does. That’s not going to happen. And then you try to figure out of your block is the block that released him to the end zone. It’s a beautiful thing. You kind of want to celebrate, but it’s everybody’s place to celebrate out there. It’s an execution thing. When it’s on kickoff return, every guy’s got to pick up their guy." -- Damion Square

The bottom line: It's true there's a good bit of room for improvement from the coverage teams. Every week there seems to be improvement, which may be a symptom of youth more than anything. Grade: B