TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- It is not anything you can touch, see, or feel. It is not an identity that can be posted on a billboard with the declaration, “This is who we are.” It is hard to grasp, still harder to prepare for if you are the opponent. You can’t easily make it “a thing.”
It is complementary football.
No. 1 Alabama has it. Your team, most likely, doesn’t have it, at least not like Alabama has it.
Alabama (8-0) is averaging 41.3 points per game with its offense and giving up just 9.8 points with its defense, which leads the country. But the Tide’s special teams might be the better unit of the three. That is what complementary football is all about; three units that don’t leave a safe spot on the field for your preferred walk-on or your third-teamer and set the other up for success.
“They have always wanted to play one phase off the other, but everyone gets so focused on offense and defense, but in reality special teams for Alabama have really become their strong suit,” said Phil Savage, the color analyst for Alabama radio broadcasts, the CEO of the Senior Bowl, and former NFL general manager and scout.
“In spite of this era of the no-huddle offense, Bama has a methodical, patient approach to the game,” said Savage. “They are like a boa constrictor. You don’t even know they are encircling you. They squeeze the life out of you because they put so much pressure on your team in all three phases.”
Tennessee was in crisis from the first play of the game Saturday. Alabama’s Christion Jones returned the opening kick to the Tide’s 49-yard line. With the short field, Alabama scored a touchdown in three plays: a 6-yard run and then two pass plays.
Then, Tennessee took the ball at its 21 with its first possession and punted after three plays.
Jones, with some blocks, returned the Tennessee punt 17 yards to the Alabama 34-yard line. Alabama could use its full playbook with room to maneuver. Special teams was complementing the offense again with field position. The Tide scored in seven plays and led 14-0 on its way to a breezy 45-10 win.
Count it up. Before Alabama even snapped the ball to quarterback AJ McCarron, it had 66 yards in what people like to call “hidden yards.” That’s the equivalent of six first downs and they don’t seem so hidden to me.
There were 27 plays on special teams in the Alabama-Tennessee game. Even if you take out seven extra points, which seem innocent until a team fakes and goes for two, that is still 20 plays that could have explosive results: punt block, kickoff return for 40 yards or more, punt return for 20 yards or more, etc.
Alabama gave up two long kickoff returns of 45 and 44 yards, which Saban said were the result of using three freshmen on the same side of the field. But, mostly, Alabama’s special teams set up its offense and defense.
Punter Cody Mandell said special teams at Alabama are not a place to hide, or reward the walk-on who is a hard worker. It means more than that to Alabama. The special teams player is a player who wants to be a first-team player on offense and defense and not just a spare part.
Mandell is certainly not a spare part. He is a weapon. The senior from Lafayette, La., has punted 27 times this season. Ten of his punts have landed inside the 10-yard line. Mandell averages 46.4 yards per punt, which is second in the Southeastern Conference.
Savage said that when Alabama’s offense gets bogged down, it punts itself out of trouble, and then the Tide makes you drive the length of the field. If Alabama gets a couple of first downs and takes the ball to midfield, Mandell can pin you back and make you drive 90 yards.
Shane Beamer, the son of Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who is considered one of the finest specials teams coaches of the era, said the opening kickoff of last January’s national championship was enough for him to know Alabama was going to rout Notre Dame.
“Just watching the national championship game against Notre Dame, I knew that game was about to get ugly because of the athletes Alabama had running down on special teams compared to the guys Notre Dame had out there,” Beamer said.
“They had guys like Landon Collins and Vinnie Sunseri and these guys are covering kickoffs, said Beamer. “I remember when I was at South Carolina and playing Alabama twice and they had a guy like Julio Jones out wide as a gunner on punt team and Trent Richardson is on kickoff team and making plays.
“You better put good players on special teams against Alabama. That’s the power of their recruiting.”
Alabama gains field position on special teams, but it can also gain points. Jones returned a punt 72 yards for a touchdown and had a 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Hokies in the season opener. Field goal kicker Cade Foster, a senior, booted a 53-yarder against Mississippi.
The recruiting power of Alabama is starting to show up on special teams and it was responsible for landing long snapper Cole Mazza who was regarded as the best at his skill as a high school senior by some recruiting services. Alabama went all the way to Bakersfield, Calif. to snatch Mazza.
“That’s the power of winning over and over again and it’s showing up on special teams,” said Mandell, who was a “recruited walk-on” at Alabama. He was the fifth-rated punter nationally as a high school senior and he chose the Tide over paying jobs at other schools.
It is hard to label Alabama’s identity because it does not have that top 10 NFL draft pick, or the one unit, such as the 2012 offensive line, that gives the Tide something to hang its hat on. Linebacker C.J. Mosley will be a top 25 pick in 2013 and safety Landon Collins a top 10 pick in 2014. Wide receiver Amari Cooper will be a first-rounder, along with running back T.J. Yeldon. But this team is different from the 2011 and 2012 title teams—and therefore remarkable—in that there is no clear definition of who they are.
Coach Nick Saban wants the identity of his football team to be even more semantic, more distant from numbers and statistics than the notion of “complementary football.”
“We want our identity to be that every guy is going to try and dominate his space when he plays his position, offense, defense, special teams, that’s the kind of team we want to have,” Saban said. “We want to have a team that plays with a lot of physical toughness and has the mental toughness to overcome adversity in a game and will compete for 60 minutes in a game.”
And when he says 60 minutes, he means 60 minutes, every last tick of the clock. Special teams burn time, too.