Alabama looking for answers for problematic punt returns

Alabama looking for answers for problematic punt returns

Punt returns became a problem for Alabama starting in its 41-9 win over Arkansas. Alabama built up a 21-0 lead over the Razorbacks in the first quarter before punt problems started. 

After a 22-yard drive, Arkansas punted to freshman returner Henry Ruggs. He muffed the punt on Alabama’s 18-yard line but was able to jump back on top. Just over three and a half minutes later, Ruggs once again fumbled, but this time Arkansas capitalized, recovering on Alabama’s 33-yard line. 

“I like it when guys settle the ball, get their hands up by their eyes where they can see their fingertips so they don’t catch the ball low,” head coach Nick Saban said after that win. “Both balls he caught below his waist, or tried to. When the ball drops from here to there, there’s a blind spot. You enhance the chances of not making a clean catch.”

The second muffed punt ended Ruggs’ night, leading to sophomore Treveon Diggs taking over. Diggs caught one punt cleanly, but muffed his second attempt. 

Alabama’s next game was against Tennessee, where punt returner Xavier Marks also made a mistake and coughed up the ball, but was able to jump back on top. 

“I think what we'll do at that position is evaluate this week,” Saban said. “All three guys [Marks, Ruggs and Diggs] are very capable. Trevon Diggs did a good job of doing it for a long time. Ruggs is very explosive. But the thing about it is when guys sort of don't have success, what is their confidence level? How comfortable are they? Judgment is really important and ball security is important. Xavier is very explosive. Made a great return in the game Saturday, but ball security is also very important.”

Punt returns were a huge help for Alabama last year. The Crimson Tide finished with four punts returned for touchdowns. The job was mostly split up between Diggs and current Chicago Bears corner and returner Eddie Jackson. The two combined for 24 returns last year. 

Marks added five returns after Jackson was injured. He finished with a touchdown.

Alabama fielded just 10 more punts last year than it did a year ago (34 last year), but hasn’t had anywhere near the same results. The Crimson Tide gained 528 yards last year compared to just 176 so far this year. The Crimson Tide is also averaging 7.33 yards per return, compared to a 15.53 average a year ago.

“We need to clean that up,” Saban said. “There’s no doubt about that. It should be a weapon for us.”

One candidate to help the punting game is cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick. 

Fitzpatrick is one of Alabama’s most explosive players. He has nine career interceptions, four of which were returned for touchdowns. His four pick sixes is an Alabama record. He also intercepted a pass and returned it 100 yards against Arkansas last year. The 100-yard return was the longest pick six in program history. 

“I would love to get a shot at punt return,” Fitzpatrick said.

Saban said that Fitzpatrick works with the returners during practice, just with fewer reps. 

“Minkah does takes reps with the punt return. Not something that he's done since he's been here, but I think he's very capable of doing,” Saban said.

His pitch to Saban: “Just put me back there, coach. That’s it. Trust me.”

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