Changing the game: stars play special teams

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Joe Klingbeil

It may have caught the Florida State blockers off guard when they saw Alabama starting running back Damien Harris line up on a punt formation in the third quarter of Saturday’s game. Maybe that’s why no one picked him up. The 1,000-yard rusher from a year ago busted off the line of scrimmage and blocked a punt that led to a Crimson Tide field goal.

It may have surprised the Seminoles, but to his Alabama teammates, there is no surprise the team’s leading rusher also makes an impact on special teams.

“Coach (Saban) always preaches all the star players play special teams,” linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton said. “It helps it out in the long run. It just makes you just love football because sometimes your star players cannot play special teams. So, it’s always important for them to know they’re not bigger than the team.”

The Crimson Tide made three game changing special teams plays in Saturday’s win against the Seminoles: A blocked field goal by Minkah Fitzpatrick, Harris’ blocked punt and a forced fumble by freshman Dylan Moses on a kick-off.

Bo Scarbrough, Rashaan Evans, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Ronnie Harrison, Da’Ron Payne and Dashawn Hand are just a few of the other big-name stars who started on special teams against Florida State.

Nick Saban knows how important special teams is when it comes to winning and losing a game. So, inserting the team’s stars on kick formation and punt block has become the norm around the Crimson Tide program.

“That’s what Coach (Saban) calls us to do,” linebacker Keith Holcombe said. “I mean, it’s not a surprise that a starter and a one-thousand-yard rusher going out there on special teams, and he doesn’t think twice about it.”

Holcombe’s first impact as a member of the Crimson Tide came in the form of a blocked punt for a safety in the 2015 SEC Championship against Florida. Even though he’s earned a starting role at linebacker this season, he still understands the importance of having playmakers on special teams.

“It’s a momentum shifter,” Holcombe said. “This year we are taking pride in our special teams. It can make or break a game.”

Big names like Harrison and former defensive tackle Jonathan Allen contributed to the block party last season, and two years ago during its national title run, the Crimson Tide blocked a total of six kicks. The majority of the big special teams plays aren’t coming against lesser opponents, either. Alabama is getting it done against the best teams in the country, on the biggest stages.

In the last three seasons, Alabama has blocked a punt or kick against Clemson, LSU, Georgia and in the last two match-ups with the Gators in Atlanta, the Crimson Tide has blocked a punt in each.

“They preach special teams. It’s very important,” wide receiver Calvin Ridley said. “At the NFL level, if you don’t play a starting position, you play special teams. All our starters, whoever, it doesn’t matter who you are, you can play special teams to help the team.”

If you ask most college football fans who Damien Harris is, they’ll most likely tell you he’s one of the best players on the Crimson Tide’s roster. You will elicit a similar response if you ask about Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Both players are capable of making game-changing plays at their respected positions on offense and defense, but this is Alabama, so you can add special teams’ superstar to their titles as well.

“The game can change within one play,” Hamilton said. “If you’re one the best players on the team or a leader, why not be on the field?”