The wait for Alabama football will soon be over as the Crimson Tide announced it will begin its fall camp on Friday. The Tide will hold 23 practices as well as two closed scrimmages as it gears up for its season-opener against Miami on Sept. 4 inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The next month will be pivotal in determining how Alabama lines up this season. Before the Tide breaks for camp, BamaInsider will examine each position group by taking a look at two key storylines. Today we conclude the series with the special teams unit.
Alabama’s recent high-scoring offenses have masked its problems at the punter position. Last season, the Tide ranked last in the SEC and No. 118 out of 127 Division I teams, averaging just 38 yards per punt. The year before that wasn’t much better as Alabama finished second-to-last in the conference and No. 101 nationally with an average of 39.91 yards per boot.
Even after losing its leading punter from last year in Charlie Scott, the Tide has plenty of options at the position. The only problem is none of them have shown consistency on the big stage.
Alabama returns junior Ty Perine, who led the team averaging 44.9 yards per punt in 2019. It also brings back sophomore Sam Johnson, who averaged 35.4 yards on 10 punts last season. While those two are still in the mix, there’s been a bigger buzz surrounding the Tide’s two new additions at the position this offseason.
Alabama added Troy transfer Jack Martin in May before receiving a commitment from Australian punter James Burnip a month later. While Burnip has yet to play a down of American football, Martin offers more experience, averaging a team-leading 46.12 yards per punt on 25 attempts for Troy last season.
Nick Saban didn’t come off overly confident when asked about the position during SEC Media Days last month. This is a battle that could wage on well into camp as the head coach looks to find his most consistent option.
“We have a lot of punters because it’s not been one of the strengths of our team, so we’re trying to get someone who has the ability to go out there and change field position for us a little better than what we’ve been able to do the last few years,” Saban said. “That’s not been one of the things that we’ve done a great job of when it just comes to punting average, punting performance, consistency at that position. So hopefully, with the guys that we have there now, someone will be able to do a little better job for us.”
In June, we examined some of Alabama’s options for kick return and punt return duties. An obvious candidate for either role is receiver Slade Bolden, who averaged 7.0 yards on seven punt returns last year. Running back Brian Robinson Jr. and Jahleel Billingsley both returned multiple kickoffs last year but might not be top choices as they are expected to take on increased roles in the offense this season.
Saban typically likes a pair of experienced hands on return duties. However, the opening roles on both the kick return and punt return units present an intriguing option to get the ball to one of the Tide’s incoming freshman playmakers.
Five-star cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry, who played on both sides of the ball in high school, fielded a punt during the A-Day scrimmage. Meanwhile, Alabama brings in two speedy receivers in JoJo Earle and Christian Leary who both excel at making plays in open space. While five-star running back Camar Wheaton might struggle to get carriers in Alabama’s loaded backfield, his breakaway speed could provide a dangerous option on kickoffs as he gets his feet wet at the college level.