The Texas A&M football team’s special teams have more than held their own against Alabama since the Aggies joined the Southeastern Conference, whether it’s been Drew Kaser and Braden Mann booming punts, Josh Lambo and Taylor Bertolet kicking field goals or former 12th Man Cullen Gillaspia delivering a jarring tackle.
“Man, they’re good all the time,” Alabama junior free safety Xavier McKinney said. “Their special teams is like ridiculous. Especially, I remember my freshman year when we played at A&M. I don’t know his name — I don’t even know if he’s still there, but he was No. 12 then. He had the long hair. I thought that dude was like crazy good on special teams. That was the best special teams I’ve seen in a long time. I think they pride themselves on special teams, and I think they do a really good job of executing on special teams.”
Gillaspia, the long-haired fellow, blocked a punt for a safety and recovered a fumble in the 27-19 loss to Alabama two years ago. He’s now with the Houston Texans, but A&M’s kicking game is as strong as ever with All-American senior punter Braden Mann and sophomore place-kicker Seth Small.
The 24th-ranked Aggies (3-2, 1-1) will need a solid effort from its kicking game Saturday to beat top-ranked Alabama (5-0, 2-0), which is almost a three-touchdown favorite to win its seventh straight in the series Saturday at Kyle Field.
“Their specialists are both very experienced and very, very good,” said Alabama coach Nick Saban, adding that Aggies’ good team speed shows up on special teams. “So it’s going to be a challenge for us.”
Small hit three field goals in last season’s 45-23 loss at Alabama, including a career-long of 52 yards. Mann kicked off six times, all touchbacks, and he averaged 60.8 yards on five punts en route to winning the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s best punter.
“Sometimes when you have a really good punter, it creates opportunities for you, too,” Saban said. “So if we get opportunities, we’ve got to be able to take advantage of them because we executed well. I think kickoffwise, there’s only been [six] returns all year long because they kick the ball out of the end zone every time. So If we get an opportunity on that, we’ve got to be ready to take advantage of it, and I think that’s pretty much the case in all phases of the game.”
A&M has given up long returns in its last two games.
Auburn’s Christian Tutt had a 30-yard punt return that helped the Tigers take a 14-0 lead, and Noah Igbinoghene later had a 31-yard kickoff return that set up the last touchdown in Auburn’s 28-20 win. Arkansas’ Treylon Burks had a 32-yard punt return that led to a touchdown and a 17-14 lead, though A&M came back to win 31-27.
Alabama has the SEC’s top punt returner in sophomore Jaylen Waddle, who is averaging 17.4 yards on eight returns to rank fourth in the country. Senior Trevon Diggs has returned 11 kickoffs in his career for a 25.8-yard average.
“You’ve got to cover extremely well,” A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Kick it where you’re supposed to kick it and cover, be in the lanes, do the things you’re supposed to do.”
Despite a few hiccups in coverage, A&M ranks 25th in net punting at 41.4 yards per kick. Alabama ranks 111th at 35.0, but the Crimson Tide has been without freshman Will Reichard, who averaged 39.7 yards on three punts before suffering a hip flexor injury against Southern Miss on Sept. 21. Reichard returned to practice Monday and is “day-to-day,” Saban said Tuesday. Alabama sophomore Skyler DeLong has averaged 33.9 yards on eight punts. DeLong doesn’t have enough attempts to be ranked in the NCAA statistics — the last punter listed at No. 106 is averaging 34.8 yards.
“Obviously, we need our specialists to perform well in the game so that we have an opportunity to try to control the vertical field position based on how our specialists and how our [coverage] teams perform,” Saban said.
NOTES — A&M has had six special teams players earn All-SEC honors led by Christian Kirk, the conference’s first-team return specialist in 2016 and ’17 with second-team honors in ’15. Kaser (2013) and Mann (’18) were first-team picks with Lambo (’14) and Bertolet (’15) earning second-team honors. Speedy Noil earned honorable mention at all-purpose in 2014. Kirk earned first-team honors at all-purpose in 2017. Kirk returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown in the 41-23 loss to Alabama in 2015. ... Jeff Banks, who is in his second season as Alabama’s special teams coordinator and tight ends coach, coached at A&M from 2013-17.