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March 8, 2012

Spring preview: Special teams

Tidesports.com's annual preview of spring practice at the University of Alabama concludes with a look at the special teams. This is the last of an eight-part series previewing one position each day until spring drills commence on Friday.

Jeremy Shelley (left), Cade Foster (center) and Christion Jones (right) are key returning figures for Alabama's special teams.

Moving on
The kicking specialists return across the board, but that doesn't mean the Crimson Tide isn't losing some special teams contributors. Kickoff and punt returner Marquis Maze is chief among those. Quite a few familiar faces on Alabams's coverage and return units are gone as well. That list includes Hardie Buck, Will Lowery, Brad Smelley, Chris Underwood, Dre Kirkpatrick, Brandon Gibson and Jerrell Harris.

Moving forward
Alabama kickoff man Cade Foster comes off a season in which he struggled as UA's choice for long field goal tries (2 of 9 with all attempts from 40 yards and beyond). Foster also handled kickoffs for UA, averaging 63 yards with five touchbacks on 81 attempts. The new NCAA kickoff rule that moves the kickoff spot up five yards to the 35 should help Foster pick up a few more touchbacks. Punter Cody Mandell returns as well, having averaged 39.3 yards per try last year on 39 punts. Short field goal kicker Jeremy Shelley, who was 18 of 20 from inside 40 yards last year, is also back for UA. Shelley got a few longer field goal tries in the Foster range last year, but didn't have much success. Spring drills will be a good chance for Shelley to test his range more.

Moving up
All sorts of options populate the competition at kickoff returner and punt returner. Wide receiver Christion Jones stepped in for Maze as a punt returner in some big moments last season -- including both games against No.1-ranked LSU -- so he would figure to be a primary candidate for that role in spring drills. DeAndrew White returned two punts for 34 yards last year as well. Among those who figure to get a look at kickoff returns are Jones, White and cornerback Dee Milliner, each of whom returned one kickoff last season. Punter Jay Williams has opted to leave the program in favor of attempting a baseball career, meaning any competition for Mandell this spring will come from a lesser-known walk-on.

Moving day
There are no kickers or punters among Alabama's eight early enrollers. However, defensive back Deion Belue was a standout return man at both the high school and junior college levels. Don't be surprised if Belue makes his way into the mix, particularly on kickoff returns. See Belue do his JuCo return thing by clicking here.

Position overview
Given the speed and athleticism Alabama has on hand for punt return duties, replacing Maze will be as much or more about who can secure the ball and make good decisions fielding punts than it will be about playmaking. There is room for improvement this spring for Foster and Mandell, who each have two seasons of experience in their respective roles. Younger players will have all sorts of opportunities to prove themselves on the coverage and return units. Look for the likes of Harrison Jones, Xzavier Dickson and Jarrick Williams to get more of an opportunity in these areas.

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