What are Alabama’s options on punt returns, slowing down Jayden Daniels? Mailbag

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Welcome to the biggest week of Alabama’s season and the latest Crimson Tide mailbag. The last mailbag was in the closing days of preseason camp, so now seems like as good a time as any to re-examine a few topics and hit on a few storylines that haven’t been fully discussed in the first half of the season.

Alabama’s coming off a bye week, and it provided some much-needed rest for a banged-up team. Nick Saban noted last week that via the Catapult tracking systems that monitor the players’ exertion, the team did 43 percent of its normal workload, and about “a half dozen” players didn’t practice at all. But he’s hopeful that each one will be back this week.

Tuesday’s initial College Football Playoff rankings will put Saturday’s LSU game into more perspective, but it’s the premier SEC game on a big weekend for the conference, which features Missouri at Georgia and Texas A&M at Ole Miss. The respective SEC division races will have much more clarity by the end of Saturday.

Note: Submitted questions have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Kool-Aid McKinstry had a rough day (against Tennessee) as Alabama’s punt returner. Does Alabama have a viable alternative to McKinstry? If not, what does he need to change with his approach? — Dave S.

It’s a timely question considering how important special teams and field position will be against LSU. McKinstry’s struggles on punt returns this season (11 returns for 58 yards) are a big surprise. This example against Tennessee is the biggest point of frustration:

Leading 34-20 midway through the fourth quarter, a punt came McKinstry’s way, but it hit the ground alongside him at the 25-yard line and ended up on the Alabama 1. Pinned back, Alabama’s offense went three-and-out, and Tennessee’s next possession began on its 44.

Saban attributed the mistake to the angle of the ball.

“You can see it on film when you watch it,” Saban said. “The ball was going to go over his head, and he was going to have to catch outside his body and make a tough catch. Rather than take a chance on that, he let the ball go, and unfortunately for us, it rolled to the 1-yard line.”

Yes, there are other options. An interesting development from last week is that wide receiver Isaiah Bond said he’s still working on punt returns and possibly revealed the contingency plan.

“I did punt returns in high school,” Bond said. “And yes, I am working on punt return as well; you should be seeing me soon.”

Whetherthat was a tell or a harmless clause to end the sentence remains to be seen, but it’s notable that he’s been working there. Outside of Bond, a dynamic playmaker, there are capable skill players lower on the depth chart at their respective positions (Kendrick Law, Emmanuel Henderson) who could provide a spark. But Alabama doesn’t necessarily need a dynamic option as long as the returner consistently fields punts where they land and doesn’t lose yardage by letting it drop. Alabama’s offense is still a work in progress, and every yard is important.

As far as McKinstry’s struggles, there’s a balance between confidence issues and technique. Muffing punts was an early-season concern, and there hasn’t been much success when he does field them. Since the Middle Tennessee State game, he only has one punt return for positive yardage: an 11-yard return against Arkansas.

Saban publicly has backed McKinstry as the No. 1 option, but I expect a much shorter leash if he is the returner moving forward.

“I think a lot of people are kicking the ball away from him because we had a lot of success on punt returns last year,” Saban said. “He’s had a lot of difficult balls to field. They’re not just kicking the ball to him most of the time. I don’t think he has an issue. He wants to be back there; he wants to be aggressive. He wants to do what he has to do to return punts. We have total confidence in him.”

What’s the reason we aren’t seeing more of a three- or four-running-back rotation like we saw in 2016-2018 with the depth we have now? — Ryan T.

The preseason notion that there would be that kind of rotation hasn’t played out through eight weeks. Here’s the offensive snap count: Jase McClellan (271), Roydell Williams (180), Jamarion Miller (34), Justice Haynes (21), Richard Young (5). It’s not a matter of ability, as each flashed against Arkansas. It’s more a matter of trust and play style.

The Tennessee game served as an example. Alabama faced an early deficit and relied on its top veterans, and McClellan and Williams are by far better pass blockers. Pass protection by running backs is important, but it has been elevated this year considering the struggles of the offensive line and how Jalen Milroe’s strength, deep vertical passing, is predicated on having a clean pocket. Williams has had highs and lows as a runner but has allowed one sack and two pressures in 29 tries. Miller and Haynes have surrendered two sacks and two pressures in fewer chances.



What did we learn from Alabama’s win over Tennessee?

But there’s a chance for an expanded rotation. Saban noted after the Tennessee game that McClellan was banged up entering the game. Coupled with his comments about a half dozen players resting during the off week, it’s a reasonable conclusion that McClellan rested up, which would’ve opened the door for Miller and Haynes to get more opportunities in practice. Alabama has four playable backs, and while there hasn’t been a balanced rotation, there’s a chance for more split reps down the stretch.

We know Bama has struggled with mobile QBs in the past. How do you see the matchup between this year’s Bama defense and Jayden Daniels playing out? — Mark E.

Alabama has faced KJ Jefferson and Joe Milton, but statistically, there hasn’t been a better rushing quarterback in the SEC, and arguably the nation, than Daniels, who is 80 yards shy of the LSU lead in rushing yards (521).

Where Alabama has gotten in trouble with mobile quarterbacks is losing contain to the outside and not filling the correct holes inside the tackles. This first down run by Milton is an example: Alabama sent a blitz, but there was no outside contain and no one to account for Milton, and he ran for a good gain. Plays like this hurt Alabama against Daniels last year, particularly up the middle of the defense.

QB run bust no contain

Daniels’ athleticism, LSU’s designed runs that aim to get him on the perimeter and a few draws will force Alabama to put its best athletes at the second level on the field and commit a player to spy him. I see this as a big game for Jihaad Campbell, who showed his range and speed against Tennessee. But I’d also like to see Alabama diversify the spying. We’ve seen other teams line up an edge rusher against Milroe and then drop him into coverage, so another player to watch is Quandarrius Robinson.

His snap count hasn’t been robust lately, but this could be a bigger dime package game for Alabama with LSU’s receivers, and that will open the door for Robinson as a rusher but also a spy as this example against Arkansas shows. And the biggest thing: strong yet responsible gap integrity by the defensive line.

Q Robinson new look 1

What is the state of the offensive line going exiting the bye week? — James D.

I’d consider the offensive line stable. The group is a far cry from the mauling unit many expected before the season began, but there has been improvement the past few weeks, and there’s reason to believe it will continue.

Tyler Booker and JC Latham continuously elevated their play recently and were the two highest-graded offensive linemen during the Oct. 21 weekend (Tennessee). A big reason was their success as run blockers, which is desperately needed to help balance out the offense. Jaeden Roberts has been a positive revelation recently as a starter at right guard, and while Seth McLaughlin had an illegal snap penalty, he has done a better job the past few weeks.

At left tackle, it appears that Kadyn Proctor has firm control over the position. He played every snap against Tennessee, and the priority with him from a coaching perspective is to make sure he’s not so worried about making mistakes so he plays aggressively. Consistent chipping with tight ends and running backs, heavily implemented against Tennessee, should continue moving forward.

This should be the healthiest the group has been since the start of the season. It will be interesting to see if Darrian Dalcourt or Terrence Ferguson II get into the rotation after recovering from injury. Alabama likely won’t rotate three players at right guard, but I’d like to see Ferguson get a chance there, similarly to how Elijah Pritchett rotated with Proctor: 15 or so snaps per game and see how he fares, an opportunity earned through playing well early in the season.



Alabama film study: Evaluating the Crimson Tide’s new coordinators at the idle week

It seems all the news lately is about the other elite programs landing the top recruits and/or transfers. Is this something to be concerned about, or is everything a plan for a top-three class in the next cycle? — Joe B.

Alabama has the No. 5 class via 247Sports and On3 and the No. 10 class via Rivals. What sticks out initially is Alabama is ranked that high with just 20 commitments. The average of the rest of the top 10 is 24 commits. Overall, I wouldn’t be concerned with where this class will end up.

The class is smaller in numbers, but Alabama has a young team this year and has taken at least 25 high school commits in each of the past four cycles. This class is potent as 15 of the commitments are four-star prospects or higher and one three-star: linebacker Justin Okoronkwo is a top-rated international prospect. Alabama seemed selective during this cycle and did well by securing the majority of its targets during the summer, so it can focus on the few remaining targets in the 2024 class and look ahead to 2025.

Alabama has a few needs to fill at running back and on the offensive and defensive lines. If it doesn’t come to fruition on the high school trail, expect voids to be met in the portal. This year’s group, featuring CJ Dippre, Trezmen Marshall, Jaylen Key and Trey Amos, has been impactful.



How Alabama landed Germany’s No. 1 American football prospect

From what I’ve seen, only Latham is seen as a top offensive draft pick. Is this a result of missing out on several of the more recent classes or player development? — Cedrick F.

Alabama has three players firmly in the first-round mix: Latham, McKinstry and linebacker Dallas Turner. Any other players who could sneak into the first round or are in the second-third round range are on defense: Terrion Arnold, Chris Braswell or Malachi Moore. What should we make of this?

Some historical context: Alabama only had multiple first-round picks on offense twice (2011, 2013) from Saban’s first season to 2019, then the five-year streak of multiple offensive first-rounders began, which will likely end. It’s a mix of a few factors: Development is one, particularly at wide receiver. From the 2020-22 recruiting classes, seven of the 13 signees are no longer with the team, and the only first-round pick during that time, Jameson Williams, was a transfer. But mostly, I believe this is just an off-year for Alabama’s offense in terms of the draft (and the overall performance) with so much youth.

Jermaine Burton isn’t a first-round receiver but certainly has had a bounce-back year. It wouldn’t surprise me if he will receive a Senior Bowl invite. An invite should be extended to McClellan, who has been a solid three-down back and should be a mid-round pick. Other players to get excited about like Booker, Bond and Amari Niblack are a year away from eligibility. The offense may not have the same output of high-round picks as past years, but Alabama’s program will be well-represented at the draft this year and for years to come.

Also, the 2023 NFL Draft saw Anthony Richardson, a dynamic, strong-armed quarterback who had questions about his decision-making be selected in the first round. Milroe with a second-year leap in 2024 could play himself into a top-round discussion.

(Top photo of Kool-Aid McKinstry: Chris McDill / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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