TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To avoid unnecessary collisions, Alabama doesn’t go full speed when practicing its kickoff and punt return units.
But the Crimson Tide does send defenders at the return men to make sure they can hold onto the ball under a certain amount of pressure. So far, two players have emerged as candidates to replace Cyrus Jones as the punt returner and Kenyan Drake and Richard Mullaney on kick returns.
Jones led the nation with four punt return touchdowns, including one in the College Football Playoff semifinal against Michigan State. Drake took a kickoff back 95 yards in the national championship game to help the Tide defeat Clemson.
“Calvin Ridley and Xavian Marks are the two guys that have probably done it the best,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said after Alabama’s scrimmage on Saturday. “We have two or three other guys that are doing it. But those guys have done a pretty good job and did a good job today. We didn’t have mishandled balls or have any turnovers on special teams. That was a positive.”
Ridley, a rising sophomore, returns after leading Alabama receptions (89), receiving yards (1,045) and receiving touchdowns (seven) as a true freshman last season. Ridley will headline Alabama’s talented receiver group along with Robert Foster, ArDarius Stewart, O.J. Howard and others this year.
Marks is a bit of an unknown commodity. Last season, he played in one game, had two catches for 19 yards and carried the ball once. But the 5-foot-8, 163-pound rising sophomore should see an expanded role this season.
“He’s really made a lot of progress and improvement as a receiver,” Saban said earlier this spring. “I think he kind of played running back most of the time in high school so he was in a little bit of a transition last year as he tried to become a receiver. But he is very quick, very fast, has very good hands. He’s not a big guy, but he can overcome all that and he has made a tremendous amount of improvement. He’s also made a lot of improvement as a returner, and I think the number one thing that If I had to say he has anything to prove is, if you’re going to be in those positions as a punt returner or kickoff returner or even as a slot receiver, your ball security has to be something that everyone can depend on. And I would say that to anybody that was going to do that on our team. But he has made a tremendous amount of progress and I think he will contribute to our team in those roles next year.”
One word jumped out for Howard when describing Marks: speed.
“He’s really fast. He’s hard to press, the DBs have to get pretty low to jam him,” Howard said earlier this spring. “It’s hard to jam him and in open field, it’s hard to catch him. I just think he does a great job of getting open. His size, he uses it to his advantage.”