No. 1 Alabama’s star players embrace special teams roles
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — At Alabama, the best players pull special teams duties. In fact, they embrace them.
It’s nothing new.
And in the top-ranked Crimson Tide’s opener, tailback Damien Harris made one of the biggest plays — and it didn’t come on offense. He smothered a Florida State punt in the third quarter. Earlier, star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick blocked a field goal attempt.
“I think it’s a tribute to how hard we work and that hunger we have to win and just make plays any way we can,” said Harris, who also ran for a touchdown. “Coach (Nick) Saban always talks about how everybody has a role — offense, defense, special teams, and sometimes it might even be both.
“So guys are just willing to do anything, sell out, do anything to make a play whether it’s offensively, defensively, special teams.”
That special teams emphasis, as it was in the Seminoles game , has contributed to Alabama’s success despite the much-publicized kicking troubles in recent years.
It’s why a 1,000-yard rusher like Harris was in on the punt return unit for the Tide, which hosts Fresno State on Saturday. And why Fitzpatrick, a projected first-round NFL draft pick, was going after kicks.
Starting linebacker Rashaan Evans returned the blocked field goal 29 yards.
Tight end Hale Hentges plays on the field goal and kick return units, and noted that others play three or four special teams roles.
“That obviously increases your workload a lot, but like you guys saw in the game, special teams is so important because they created so many situations for us to get ahead in that game,” Hentges said. “By doing that, by putting great players on special teams, you give yourself a great chance to win.
“Everyone always forgets how important special teams are. It increases the workload substantially but it gives us the best chance to win.”
Wide receiver Calvin Ridley played on the kickoff unit in high school. Upon arriving at Alabama, coaches added punt block and punt return duties.
Backup linebacker Keith Holcombe recovered a fumbled kick return forced by freshman Dylan Moses. Holcombe said this Alabama team “is going to take pride in our special teams.
“We know it can make or break a game,” Holcombe said. “I just think that we have those kind of guys with that kind of mindset that’s willing to do anything to help the team win.”
Saban tries not to play a starter on more than two special teams units.
Harris said when Florida State faced fourth down, Saban told the players: “All right, let’s go after it.”
That block set up a field goal that gave Alabama a 13-7 lead. The forced fumble on the following kickoff return set up another quick touchdown in Alabama’s 24-7 win.
Alabama’s kicking game , meanwhile, remains a work in progress. Punter JK Scott had a 9-yard punt.
New placekicker Andy Pappanastos, a Mississippi transfer, made three field goals but missed his two longest attempts, from 42 and 41 yards.
Saban said Pappanastos’ accuracy from 40 yards in “is very, very good.”
“I think he’s capable of being even more consistent than what he was in that particular game,” the coach said.” We don’t want to miss any, but we’re also going to be very supportive and confident that he hits the ball well he can make all those field goals.”
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25