Special teams stepping up

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Confidence, they say, is infectious.

That's certainly the case for the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide's special teams. A boost in morale has spread from head to toe for Alabama's specialists. Watching each field goal split the uprights and every kickoff sail into the end zone has done wonders to improve the body language of a unit that looked like the walking dead last season.

Now, when Cade Foster kicks, he does so with authority. He sets his feet, takes one step, plants his left foot and whirls his hefty right leg forward. He connects, the ball sails higher and higher, but his eyes aren't always going with it.

After a season marred by missed opportunities and letdowns, Foster doesn't have to see to believe. All he needs to do is turn to the scoreboard and see three more points added to Alabama's total.

Last season, Foster didn't make a single attempt beyond 50 yards. This season, he's made three. Coupled with a resurgent Jeremy Shelley making the short-range attempts, Alabama has improved its field goal percentage from 63.9 percent to 84.6.

"We all trust Coach [Nick] Saban," Foster said. "If he puts me on the field, I know I can do it."

On kickoffs, Foster has already booted 19 more touchbacks than he did all of last season.

The success on special teams doesn't end there.

Cody Mandell has improved his yards per punt significantly, reaching 42.3 yards per boot. Last season he ranked at the bottom of the SEC West in that category and put just 11 punts inside the 20-yard line. This year, he's already placed five punts inside the 20.

His success can be attributed to a better mental outlook. He's keeping the past where it belongs now -- behind him.

"Every play has a life of its own," Mandell explained. "After I kick the first punt, the next punt is its own."

Alabama currently ranks No. 37 in the country in net punting. A year ago the Tide finished No. 60.

"He's worked hard, he's matured, he's stayed focused on what he's doing," Saban said of Mandell. "He's punted better in practice, he punted better in the game."

The improvement from Mandell and Foster hasn't been let down by the coverage units. All told, Alabama is allowing 19.81 yards per return, down nearly two yards from a season ago. Opponents' punt returners aren't faring any better, getting an average of 7 yards before going down.

Sophomore return specialist and receiver Christion Jones, who returned the school's first kickoff for a touchdown since Sept. 2010 on Saturday, said the coverage teams have done a good job thus far. Freshmen like Tyler Hayes, Landon Collins and Cyrus Jones have all contributed.

"The young guys are stepping up big time, making plays, making blocks, making tackles," Christion Jones said. "Our special teams is doing a great job all around. I just think we gotta hold to buying in on what we're going to do each time and trust in our unit."

Given the loss of DeAndrew White and Dee Hart, Alabama's special teams are in flux. Both players were significant contributors outside of their roles on offense, with Hart recently taking on the duties of punt returner. With Hart lost for the season, Christion Jones may have to step back in.

"He did a great job … We've got Cyrus, we have Amari Cooper, we have me included stepping up," he said. "We have to do what we can to make our punt return unit special."