TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama’s most exciting offensive player will get an opportunity to showcase his talents on special teams this season.
With Cyrus Jones graduating, Alabama moved wide receiver Calvin Ridley to the starting spot as the punt returner.
Ridley’s first opportunity to field a punt comes Saturday in Cowboy Stadium when Alabama faces USC. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on ABC.
“I did a little bit in high school, but I got pretty good at it, catching it and seeing holes and stuff,” Ridley said. “Coach (Nick) Saban’s been teaching me, so I’m going to be ready for it.”
Ridley watched and learned from Jones last season as he developed into one of the most effective punt returners in the country last season. Jones led the country with four punt return touchdowns. Ridley initially struggled with catching the ball because he would be more focused on the things around him.
He’s learned to block out the footsteps in order to lock in on the most important aspect of the job: catching and securing the ball.
“I used to be back there with Cyrus last year, so I used to always watch him catch it in practice,” Ridley said. “When I first got here, I wasn’t too good at catching it, and then Cyrus, I used to see what he did to square up on the ball and stuff. And coach Saban gave me a few pointers, so I’m pretty confident.”
Alabama doesn’t go full speed on punt and kick returns in practice to avoid unnecessary contact. That can make it difficult to simulate the speed of an in-game return.
“I just try to go fast for me. Go fast,” Ridley said. “And if it’s scout team, I’ll help my guys because they (USC) have great returners on their team and everybody else in the country does too. So for me, I just try to go fast so I can help myself for game situations.”
Ridley is considered one of the top receivers in the country heading into his sophomore season. Ridley went over 100 yards four times last season. He set Alabama freshman records with 89 receptions for 1,045 yards to go with seven touchdowns. Ridley’s 89 receptions were an SEC freshman record and the second most in FBS history by a true freshman. Ridley was named to the Sporting News and SEC All-Freshman teams as well as the All-SEC Second Team by the Associated Press.
With a big season at receiver and as a punt returner, Ridley could make a push for the Heisman Trophy. Former Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper finished as a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2014, but ended up a distant third to winner Marcus Mariota (Oregon) and runner-up Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin).
Former Michigan star and current ESPN analyst Desmond Howard was the last receiver to win the award. Howard took home the trophy in 1991 after putting up stellar numbers as receiver and return man. Howard caught 61 passes for 960 yards and 19 touchdowns, rushed 12 times for 165 yards and two scores, averaged 15.3 yards (with a touchdown) on punt returns and 31 yards on kick returns (with a touchdown).
“He’s a very talented guy. He’s got great quickness,” Saban said during Wednesday’s SEC coaches teleconference. “The most important thing about punt return is putting a guy back there who has really good judgment, especially in this day and age when people rugby punt and the ball can be difficult to field.
“He does a really good job with that. He’s got good judgment. He’s got some experience. He’s explosive as a returner. We’re excited to see how he does in that role.”