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A few coaching points came together for Alabama in Saturday’s 63-7 win over Louisiana-Monroe.
Seven days after tempting a school record with 15 penalties at Texas and a year after struggling to legally block on punt returns, the stars aligned somewhere over Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Not only did the penalty count dip to six, none of those enforced impeded a punt-return game for the record books.
With eight punts returned — the most Alabama’s had since the 11 in 2011 against Kent State — a 75-year-old record fell. The 262 yards broke a record that stood since a 1947 win over LSU in a record book entry that didn’t even include a second-highest total.
The 33-yard average includes the 21 yards from the Ja’Corey Brooks’ block recovered by Malachi Moore for a touchdown. Looking at just the seven (relatively) successful kicks, Alabama averaged 34.4 yards with just one netting fewer than 20 yards.
Only one went for fewer than 20 yards as Kool-Aid McKinstry’s 136 yards on five attempts was the third-highest individual total in program history. Third-string returner Brian Branch added a 68-yard touchdown return in the second half, the first such score for Alabama since 2020 and DeVonta Smith.
Go back to last season and Alabama was flagged at least eight times for blocking infractions on punt returns. JoJo Earle had returns of 48 and 27 yards against Southern Mississippi erased by penalties. Most didn’t impact the result though one in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl came as Alabama was clawing back to force overtime.
“It really comes down to judgment,” Nick Saban said Monday before going deep into the technical terminology. “We coach punt returns very similar this year to the way we did last year. You know, clamp the guy, stab and lag the guy, sit and fit the guy, don’t clip, don’t blindside hit anybody. Pull off the clip if you have to, which means you just try to shield the guy, don’t hit him in the back.”
Though Alabama has a new special teams coach in Coleman Hutzler, Saban said the message hasn’t evolved.
“So, players make good choices and decisions because they play with discipline and they understand the consequences of making bad choices and decisions,” Saban said. “One of the things we want to improve on is to be able to play penalty free and eliminate penalties.”
Jahmyr Gibbs added a 57-yard kickoff return for good measure a week after Alabama had its only special teams penalty in a return situation. DeMarcco Hellams was flagged for holding on the opening kickoff Gibbs returned for 17 yards at Texas.
Nationally, Alabama’s No. 13 averaging 27.7 yards on its four kickoff returns.
In terms of punts, the 21.5-yard average is by far the most among teams with at least 10 returns this season. The 13 Tide attempts rank second behind the 14 for Utah, a unit that averages 9.0 yards per return.
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