Alabama leery of Texas' special teams

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Texas' deep collection of athletes has helped the Longhorns to become one of the most dangerous special-teams units in the country.

The Longhorns accounted for seven touchdowns through special teams this season. The punt team produced four Texas touchdowns -- two on returns and two on blocked punts. Texas was tied for third nationally with three touchdowns on kickoff returns.

Those points have caught the attention of Alabama coach Nick Saban, who realizes his team will be challenged by Texas' athletic ability on special teams in Thursday's Citi BCS National Championship Game.

"I think in both phases of the return game, punt and kickoff, they're probably as good as anybody that we've played against," Saban said.

The NCAA's most recent statistics bear that point out. Texas, Alabama and Arizona are the only teams nationally that rank in the top 15 in both kickoff returns and punt returns.

Saban is concerned about Jordan Shipley's abilities as a punt returner. Shipley averaged 13.0 yards per return and scored two touchdowns, although he was hobbled late in the season with a toe injury.

Given the last month to recover, Shipley should be ready Thursday night.

"I'm about as ready as I'll ever be," Shipley said. "I'm excited to see if I can go out and make people miss and try and make something happen."

The Longhorns' techniques in their punt return game have caught Saban's attention.

"They do a good job in terms of loading the box and forcing the punt and then holding up from the same looks, so it makes it a little bit more difficult to cover," Saban said. "So there's going to be a challenge for us to protect, punch through and get in cover lanes. Our gunners are going to have to do a good job of forcing the kicks and our punter has to do a good job of getting hang time and placing his kicks."

But the most significant area of concern for the Crimson Tide will be in kickoff coverage. The Tide yielded kickoff returns for touchdowns in each of its first two games and finished the season allowing an average of 25.6 yards per return. It ranked 116th among the 120 FBS teams.

Texas' kickoff team should be juiced with the return of D.J. Monroe to the lineup following a three-game suspension. He had been arrested and charged with driving while intoxicated.

When the charges were dropped last month, Monroe and his 35.8 yard-per-kick areturn verage will return to Texas' return rotation. Monroe ranked second nationally and had two touchdowns on returns.

While Monroe was suspended, Marquise Goodwin provided a pivotal 95-yard kickoff return that helped ice the Longhorns' victory at Texas A&M in the regular-season finale.

Both are accomplished athletes at track and field. Goodwin is a two-time world junior champion in the long jump and the 4x100 meter relays. And Monroe won a state 100 meter championship while in high school.

"They have tremendous speed in both their return guys," Saban said. "If you don't keep the ball in front and stay in your lanes and dodge blocks ... if you give them a seam, they're going to get out and get off to the races and it's going to be pretty hard to manage that."

Texas coach Mack Brown said the big plays on special teams could well determine who wins the game.

"The kicking game and a chance for the explosive play will be big," Brown said. "You try to get your guys in space with the ball and hope they can make something happen."