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August 2, 2006Other than trying to replace one of the nation's top return men and breaking in his third punter in as many seasons, it should be a rather uneventful fall camp for Alabama special teams coordinator Dave Ungerer. There's also the new NCAA rule that will have Jamie Christensen using a one-inch tee on kickoffs. And did I mention that the Crimson Tide will need to replace a long snapper who threw 24 perfect games in his two years on the job?
As you can see, Ungerer, who also mentors the Tide's tight ends, will have plenty on his plate when fall camp gets underway at UA next Tuesday. And while each aspect carries the same amount of importance in Ungerer's mind, identifying a replacement for Tyrone Prothro in the punt return game sits at the top of his to-do list.
"I think the big thing for us is the return game. We were right there with the best in the country in a few categories when we had Tyrone back there," Ungerer said. "Then he goes down and we kind of struggle the rest of the way. When you have a special guy like Tyrone you're all of sudden a better coach because he can do things other kids can't. We drill them all just as hard as we drill Tyrone, but you're talking about a guy who just has a knack for it.
"For us, finding a little bit of magic back there will be essential to our team as a whole."
With Prothro sidelined for more than half of the 2005 campaign with a broken leg, Ungerer went through four punt returners in Alabama's final seven games. By season's end, UA had averaged 7.2 yards per return, a total that ranked 82nd nationally. Prothro was averaging a modest 7.4 yards per return prior to going down in the Tide's blowout win over Florida, but his 64-yard punt return for a score (which was wiped away by a UA penalty) against the Gators was a prime example of what he brought to the position.
Prothro's injury triggered the signing of return specialist Javier Arenas in February. According to Ungerer, Arenas and another true freshman, Terry Grant, will join Simeon Castille in competing for the punt return job.
"I don't think it's something you want to do on a consistent basis," Ungerer said of the possibility of having a true freshman fielding punts. "You always feel better when you have kids who have been through the wars, but we made a conscious effort to go out and get a return guy [Arenas] who we felt like could come in and do the job. We think Arenas has great skills back there, and the other guy [Grant] was Mr. Football in Mississippi.
"I feel good about Simeon, too. I think he's got the ability to be a good returner. But I also think a lot is going to be asked of him in our defense. The thing about that is an offensive guy is sitting over there resting and then he comes out on fourth down to return the punt. A guy like Simeon has been out there an entire drive and he might be a little tired.
"I'm not saying the guys we have here already can't do it, but we do think that Javier can eventually be special."
As for kickoff returns, Arenas and Grant will join a host of returning running backs and wide receivers in competing for the two return positions. The Tide averaged 22.2 yards per return (No. 26 nationally) in 2005.
"I'm really excited about looking at Grant because of his explosiveness," Ungerer said. "He's a guy, along with Javier, that we want to take a look at. The pool back there is a little bit bigger than at punt return. Kids feel a little more comfortable back there because it's not as difficult as catching punts.
"[True freshman] Tremayne Coger is another guy who has good speed and was a very good high school returner. Glen Coffee has already done it and he has a chance to be a special guy back there. Hopefully, he'll be 100 percent and ready to go, but we'll have to wait and see."
Next up on Ungerer's checklist will be the punting game. After netting 37.9 yards per boot in 2004 (No. 20 nationally), the Tide's net average dipped to 32.6 a season ago (No. 88 nationally). Ungerer will be counting on redshirt freshman punter P.J. Fitzgerald to get the job done this fall.
"For me, the punting situation is something I'm really looking forward to seeing," Ungerer said. "I'm anxious to see how P.J. is going to respond to being the guy. He kind of had a slow beginning to spring practice but then he came on at the end. He has a lot of tools but he hasn't been in a game, so we'll have to see how he responds when 92,000 people are in the stadium.
"Our net has got to be better because field position is key when you play the kind of defense we play. P.J. has to give us some improved hang time."
The focus won't be solely on punt coverage, though. The implementation of the one-inch tee will result in more kickoff coverage and return opportunities for UA and its opponents.
"I think it puts more emphasis on being better as a coverage team," Ungerer said. "We've had right around 20 or so touchbacks a year since we've been here, and now we're not going to have as many. Your going to have to cover more, which is a challenge in a lot of ways. You also have the adjustment you have to make with your kickers. Their approach will have to change a little bit.
"It also puts a premium on being a better return and having your personnel and schemes geared up for more opportunities."
For Christensen, the change comes at a time when his touchback percentage is on the decline. After recording touchbacks on 24 of his 62 (39 percent) kickoffs in 2004, the junior went 14 for 50 (28 percent) last fall.
"I think having to focus on field goals last season affected his kickoffs somewhat," Ungerer said. "He had all the pressure that comes with kicking field goals and he didn't have that the year before. He's worked on it and I think he'll be more consistent this year."
Christensen forever endeared himself to Tide fans by knocking through three game-winning field goals in 2005. While no one can question his ability to convert in the clutch, he was somewhat inconsistent in converting 16 of 25 field goal attempts a season ago.
Consistency wasn't an issue for Christensen during spring drills, however, as he made good on all but a few kicks against a live rush. Ungerer envisions Christensen coming on in the same manner that Brian Bostick did in 2004.
"You look at Brian's first year as our field goal kicker [when he made 16 of 24 FG attempts] and Jamie's first year and they had almost identical numbers," Ungerer said. "The difference was that when Brian had chances to win games against Arkansas and Tennessee, he missed. Last year, Jamie kicked at the same percentage as Brian did [in 2003], but he made his big kicks. Looking back, it's amazing to think about the difference those kicks made in those two seasons for us.
"We've talked about how Brian improved from one season to the next. We want Jamie to be in the 80 percent range as far as made field goals. He was at 64 percent last year, so we want about a 15 or 20 percent increase, which would put him with the top guys in the country. Based on what he did in the spring, we feel like he's ready to do that."
As for the players who will fill out UA's coverage and return units, Ungerer plans to look at several underclassmen when staffing those spots.
"We've got a slew of redshirt freshmen who have had a year to mature, and if they come up big for us it will allow us to rest guys like [starting linebackers] Juwan Simpson and Terrence Jones," said Ungerer, who has targeted linebackers Prince Hall, Eryk Anders, Zach Schreiber and defensive backs Cory Reamer and Chris Rogers as candidates for the Tide's coverage and return teams. "We haven't been able to give guys much of a break in our first three years here."
Though his efforts have gone largely unnoticed, Jones has been involved in just about every facet of special teams play since stepping on campus. With the senior taking over as the starter at strongside linebacker, will he continue to play a significant role in the kicking game?
"That's a delicate situation when you talk about the number of snaps Terrence will play at linebacker, plus the snaps he's played for us on special teams," Ungerer said. You're talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 snaps and that's hard to do in the SEC. We're going to have to be smart with him that way. The great thing is that he's played so many snaps he can go in there and help us out if we need him to."
Stepping into the shoes of graduated long snapper Drew Lane will be senior Luke Spaulding.
"We had Drew for two years and he did a good job and we've been training Luke for two years," Ungerer said. "Unfortunately, we're only going to have him for one year, but we're thinking we won't miss a beat with him in there."
BOL Xtra: The following specialists are expected to be included on UA's 105-man fall camp roster: Placekickers Christensen, Andrew Friedman and Leigh Tiffin; punters Fitzgerald, Heath Thomas and Adam Hill; and long snappers Spaulding and Brian Selman. Tiffin is the son of former UA all-america placekicker Van Tiffin, while Hill hails from Douglasville, Ga. Both will enter the program as recruited walk-ons. "I'm really looking forward to seeing Tiffin," Ungerer said. "The thing that was exciting about him was that he kicked off the ground in high school. We felt like he might be able to come in and give us some good competition and not have as big of a learning curve." Ungerer described Hill as "a big kid with a big leg who is probably going to have some growing pains because of how much quicker things are going to happen at this level." Thomas came on late in spring drills to finish No. 2 at punter Friedman is entering his second year at Alabama. "The transition was a little tough for him last year," Ungerer said, "but from everything I've been told he's ready to take it to the next level." Fitzgerald is penciled in to take over as Christensen's holder. "I really like P.J. there," Ungerer said. "Jamie feels comfortable with him and that's obviously important. He's a good athlete who has good hands."