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October 1, 2013

Alabama finds strength in special teams

Getting by Alabama's defense is challenge enough.

Throw in some marked improvement in Alabama's special teams coverage in 2013, and it's adding some extra distance to the difficulty for the opposition.

"I think we've done a better job in our coverage units this year, no doubt," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "Kickoff coverage has been really good. We've got really good team speed on that unit. They get down the field. They've got a lot of pride in what they do."

Alabama is making the field longer for its opponents through the first four games.

It leads the Southeastern Conference and ranks 19th nationally in kick return defense, allowing just 17.7 yards per return. That's a big step forward from last year, when the Crimson Tide finished 66th nationally.

Alabama allowed seven returns of 30 yards or more in 2012. Through four games this year, the unit has given up only one.

"So far this season special teams have played a big part in our games," said linebacker C.J. Mosley, whose standing as the team's defensive leader does nothing to keep him out of special teams work. Having starters on special teams units has been a staple for the Crimson Tide since Saban's arrival.

"We always treat special teams as a game-changer, a momentum-changer," Mosley said.

And when the Alabama offense has struggled, Alabama's punting unit has done it's job admirably.

Alabama is 17th in the country in net punting (40.6) thanks to Cody Mandell. Eight of his 22 punts have been returned this season for a total 60 yards.

"I feel the season has been going pretty good," Mandell said. "(I've) been hitting a lot of the punts that I've wanted to hit, a lot of what the team needs and we've been executing on all cylinders in all the special teams units, and the entire special teams unit as a whole has been really good."

Take away the 43-yard return on a 61-yard Mandell boot from Virginia Tech's Kyshoen Jarrett in the season opener, and that's just 17 yards on seven returns.

"Cody has done a better job of placing the ball for us," Saban said. "We've actually changed. We used to kick the ball more to the right. We found out in the offseason that he kicks it better to the left. So we've sort of started changing our coverage unit, coverage pattern, so that we can kick the ball to the left. And that's worked out well for us so far."

Last weekend, Ole Miss started 10 drives off an Alabama punt or kickoff and never had better starting field position than its own 36. It started four of those 10 drives inside its own 20.

"When the coverage unit is on like we were against Ole Miss this past week, I mean, I'm so happy all the time," Mandell said.

Reach D.C. Reeves at dc.reeves@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0196.


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