TUSCALOOSA — Coming out of its first bye week, Alabama’s offense is hardly at full strength with a couple of starters expected to be “day-to-day” this week with injuries.
Crimson Tide coaches will take a wait-and-see approach with freshman kicker/punter Will Reichard (hip flexor), who is expected to resume kicking duties Monday after taking much of the last two weeks off from practice following the hip injury suffered early against Southern Mississippi.
“He hasn’t done anything for a couple of weeks, so today will be the first day where he will actually kick a ball,” Saban said of Reichard. “So we’ll just have to evaluate that, (and) that’ll be day-to-day.”
While there is confidence Reichard should be able to kick some Saturday, how much and what his particular role will involve is yet to be determined as team personnel await to see how he responds in practice this week.
Reichard, who is four of seven on field goals this season, has done a little bit of everything when it comes to the kicking game, even punting, though his availability to do that Saturday remains in question. Alabama ranks 127th out of 130 teams averaging 35.45 yards per punt this season, with sophomore Skyler DeLong averaging less than 30 yards on his last five punts.
“There is competition at the punting position, but it’s difficult to day right now whether he’ll be capable of punting or what exactly his role can be in this game,” Saban said of Reichard. “Maybe he can kick, maybe he can punt. Maybe he can’t kickoff. I really don’t know at this point, we’ll just have to evaluate it through the course of the week.”
Crimson Tide starting junior center Chris Owens (knee) also remains “questionable” against No. 21 Texas A&M with a knee injury, according to Saban.
“Chris Owens is the only guy that has a little knee problem who may be questionable,” Saban said, “(He) will be day-to-day and questionable for this game. That’s the only injury update that we have.”
Owens, who missed the New Mexico State game earlier this season, wasn’t present during any of the three open media viewing periods throughout the bye week and appears to be limited this week as well.
Junior transfer guard Landon Dickerson, who replaced Owens as the Crimson Tide’s starting center against New Mexico State, filled in for Owens during practice last week and is expected to once again field that position should Owens not be available Saturday in College Station, Texas. Redshirt junior guard Deonte Brown, who returned from a six-game suspension last week against Ole Miss, could be in line to make his first start since late last season at right guard should Dickerson start at center Saturday.
A&M’s special teams
Saban has long been an admirer of Texas A&M’s special teams, so much so that he hired away veteran special teams coordinator Jeff Banks two offseasons ago to bring some of that success to Tuscaloosa.
But not even Banks’ absence has changed much of what the 21st-ranked Aggies do on special teams, a reality No. 1 Alabama is well aware as it gets ready to travel to College Station, Texas, for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
“They’re good on special teams. They’re very well coached,” Saban said Monday. “They’ve got good team speed. Their specialists are both very experienced and very, very good. It’s going to be a challenge for us. … Obviously we need our specialists to perform well in the game so that we have an opportunity to try to control the vertical field position based on our team and how our specialists perform.”
While it’s uncertain exactly what role Reichard (hip flexor) will be able to have Saturday, his expected return to the field should be a boost to Alabama’s entire special teams unit.
That said, DeLong and sophomore kicker Joseph Bulovas must elevate their individual play of late and produce when called upon Saturday. DeLong is averaging 29.6 yards on his last five punts this season while Bulovas went just 1 of 2 two weeks ago against Ole Miss, appearing in Reichard’s place, with a miss from just 28 yards out.
There won’t be much margin for error in College Station, especially with some of the playmakers that make up Texas A&M’s special teams unit.
“They’re fast, they get off blocks real well,” Alabama sophomore return man Jaylen Waddle said Monday. “(The A&M) punter, (senior Braden Mann), he’s really good – he won the best punter (Ray Guy) award, so that speaks for itself. They’re a really talented group.”
Mann ranks third in the SEC averaging 48.4 yards per punt this season, down slightly from the conference-leading 50.98-yard average that helped him win the Ray Guy Award last season.
A&M’s return game is also among the league leaders with freshman Ainias Smith averaging 22.3 yards on three kickoff returns so far this season, while junior Roshauud Paul ranks fifth in the SEC averaging 13.3 yards on nine punt returns.
Alabama sophomore Jaylen Waddle, a native of Houston, leads the conference averaging 17.4 yards on eight punt returns this season.
Given the Aggies’ success on special teams so far this season, Saban made it clear Alabama must “take advantage” if and when it gets a chance for a return Saturday.
And his splashy return man heard him loud and clear
“There's gonna be opportunity, but it’s what I make of it,” Waddle said Monday. “I mean, if the opportunity comes, you just got to make a play.”
Saban: Players with ‘right mindset’ improved
Alabama spent much of last week’s bye during a bit of “quality control” with its players, evaluating and then working to refine or fine-tune some areas in need of improvement.
How much and to what degree the Crimson Tide players actually improved during the first of its two off weeks this season is yet to be seen, and it largely depended on how they approached the week.
“I think there’s three things that happen in a bye week. You either make improvement ‘cause you have the right mindset, you’re stagnant and you kind of stay the same, or you backslide,” Saban said Monday. “I think it’s one of those three things. I don’t think you can categorize everybody and put them in this same category (and say) that everybody improved. I think some guys that had the right mindset have improved and some guys probably didn’t get out of it what they could have.”
For some of the seven true freshmen that have started games for Alabama this season, that involved trying to accelerate their trial-by-fire development, especially the four among Alabama’s starting defensive front seven – defensive linemen D.J. Dale and Justin Eboigbe and linebackers Christian Harris and Shane Lee.
And by the sound of it, not everyone made the same sort of progress, though there was progress to be had.
“I think some guys made improvement who had the right mindset during the bye week,” Saban said. “Other guys we tried to push to get them to stay focused like they needed to. In some cases, we got improvement.”