Mention Javier Arenas and inevitably the talk turns to punt returns. But Arenas thinks of himself as a defensive player, Alabama’s starting left cornerback. He even allowed himself a little fantasy, moving to defensive end.
His second sack of the 6-7, 238-pound Mallett “was scary,” Arenas said. “I didn’t think he was going down. That sucker was big. Looking back on it, it was a good feeling. I worked for it, it was well executed, it was what we were looking for.”
A sportswriter suggested Arenas might get some work at jack linebacker, the hybrid position used for rushing the passer. “He can work me at D end,” Arenas said. “Let’s do it! Let’s go! Julius Peppers. I think Coach Sal is scouting me over there.”
Sal Sunseri is Alabama’s outside linebackers coach. He came to Bama this year from the Carolina Panthers, where he had coached All-Pro Julius Peppers.”
On further review, Arenas surmised, “He can’t get me. I have to stay in the secondary.”
It wasn’t Arenas’ first sack this year. Against Virginia Tech in the season opener Arenas forced an intentional grounding by the Hokies.
Arenas said he didn’t know what his role might be as a pass rusher this week when the Crimson Tide, 4-0 and ranked third in the nation, goes to Kentucky for a Southeastern Conference game against the Wildcats. Kickoff will be shortly after noon EDT (11:21 a.m. central time). Kentucky is 2-1, coming off a home loss to number one ranked Florida, 41-7.
Arenas, a favorite of sports reporters for his humor and candor, was asked what advice he would give to a young player who wanted to learn how to return punts.
“Don’t,” said Arenas.
Arenas said his philosophy on punt returns is not to try to “break a big one. Try to do too much and you’ll end up losing yardage or fumbling. From the initial point of attack, get what you can. That’s what I’ve learned to do, been taught to do, coached to do. It’s been very successful. Some guys can just sit back there, shake and make everybody miss. That’s them; that’s what they do.”
Arenas was reminded that in his early days he was a punt return man with a lot of moves. “Now I just head upfield and get what I can get and still make plays,” he said. “If I have to I’ll go backwards, but if there’s 10 yards of air in front of me, I’m going to grab it.”
Arenas said, “You’ve got to have a lot of confidence back there because it’s almost like you against 11 guys. Not saying your blockers don’t block, but you’re just back there by yourself, that’s what it feels like. You’re 40 yards deep by yourself and you’ve got to have a lot of confidence. You’ve got to. It’s a scary feeling back there sometimes, especially when the game is on the line. You make a mistake, it’s your fault. And you can’t blame nobody because everybody is 40 yards away. But the advice I’d give is be confident. And be relaxed.”
Arenas qualifies to give advice, In his Alabama career he has returned 108 punts for 1,544 yards, an average of 14.3 yards per return, and six touchdowns. He has already broken all Alabama records for punt returns and has his sights on SEC and NCAA records. He is the NCAA active leader in career punt returns, yards, touchdowns, returns per game, and yards per game.
Arenas is just 165 punt return yards away from break Lee Nalley’s long-standing SEC record of 1,472 yards, set 1947-49, which is 60 years. Nalley’s record was the NCAA record until 2003 when Texas Tech’s Wes Welker finished his career with 1,761 yards. Arenas needs 231 yards to break that mark.
One decision a punt return man has to make is whether to fair catch. Arenas said he dropped a punt earlier this year because he watched the gunner (punting team’s outside coverage man) “way too long.” He said he makes a fair catch when he thinks the ball has been in the air a long time.
“I’m going to fair catch sometimes. A fair catch is never a bad decision. Sometimes it’s not the best decision, but you can’t go wrong with a fair catch. One of the things Coach Saban has taught me is to make better decisions.”
One man Arenas doesn’t worry about is the first defender downfield. “We don’t block him, because he can’t tackle me,” Arenas said. ‘It’s hard to tackle someone in the open field. Anybody. So if you can’t make that first guy miss, you really shouldn’t be back there. Typically, the return man never gets tackled by the first guy.”
Arenas said it’s hard to describe what it’s like to catch a punt. “The ball is real slow coming down,” he said. “It’s like just sailing out there. Everything is way slower—until you catch it. Then everything is like NASCAR.
“I’ve been doing it for four years, so it’s hard to get inside and explain what it’s really like. It’s like getting up and eating cereal in the morning. Well, you guys (sportswriters may have bagels and coffee. But you can’t explain what you do. I pour the cereal in the bowl. You just do it.”
In Alabama’s win over Arkansas, Arenas had two long returns wiped out by penalties on teammate Cory Reamer.
“You can’t get mad at a guy,” Arenas said. “They’re the reason you’re successful on a punt return. You can’t fault a guy for that because he’s trying to block.”