Oct. 17, 2008
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - Javier Arenas was in the midst of an 87-yard highlight reel of a punt return, spinning and reversing field in multiple directions like he had done many times before, but Alabama coach Nick Saban was having a hard time seeing anything good coming from it as the play developed.
After catching the ball at his own 13-yard line, Arenas was off and running, only he was headed in the wrong direction and quickly running out of real estate.
“When he popped out the back door, I'm saying, ‘What is he doing?’” Saban said. “I’m thinking he’s going to lose ground. All of a sudden, two steps later, you’re saying, ‘He may go all the way.’”
Saban’s reaction to Arenas’ touchdown against Tulane earlier this season may reflect that of college football fans across the country who are starting to take notice of Alabama’s number 28: keep your eyes on him. There’s a good chance he may end up in the end zone, even if it may take a few extra yards to get there.
“He does surprise me,” Saban said. “But he’s got great quickness. To me, the greatest asset of a punt returner is not really overall speed but their ability to make one guy miss with their quickness.”
Arenas has made a career at Alabama out of finding creative ways to get to the end zone, juking cornerbacks, linebackers and even quarterbacks that stand in his way practically out of their cleats, but it’s not always by choice. There are times he would much rather run directly to the goal line and leave the juking to the imagination.
One such example, he said, is the 87-yarder against Tulane that had Saban anxious.
“I was just trying to move forward but a guy grabbed me,” Arenas said. “He swung me around. That's the only reason why I went backwards. I didn’t intend to go backwards; I was forced to go backwards. After that I had to make the best of the situation so I just cut back across the field and from there my blockers took over. The guys made great blocks.”
Before this season, Arenas was a dangerous threat in the kicking game, forcing teams to change their schemes on special teams to neutralize his return ability. But this year, with Arenas patrolling the Alabama secondary at cornerback, SEC coaches may be running out of ways to keep him off highlight reels.
One example came in Alabama’s week four SEC opener at Arkansas. The Razorbacks made it no secret that they were going to keep the ball away from Arenas on special teams, kicking all three of their kickoffs in the game to other players, but the Hogs gave it right to him in the first quarter when quarterback Casey Dick threw an interception into Arenas’ chest.
Sixty-three yards later, the Tampa native’s speed and shiftiness had immediately negated all the special teams scheming that went into preparing to play Alabama. Sixty-three yards later, Javier Arenas had suddenly forced SEC quarterbacks to keep him in mind.
Sixty-three yards later, for all his special teams work, Arenas had become an equally dangerous threat in the Alabama secondary and had found another way to give Alabama six points.
“It was just one of those situations where the receiver ran an option route and made a slight mistake,” Arenas said after the game. “I was able to adjust and take it back for six. All week coach was talking about coming out firing and hitting them in the mouth quick. I think we did that.”
Arenas’ interception return was the first of his career, to go with the four touchdowns he has recorded on punt returns. His work on special teams, in addition to giving Alabama points without the offense stepping foot on the field, has seem to come at crucial times. In the 2006 PetroSun Independence Bowl, Arenas returned a punt for a touchdown to bring Alabama to within seven points of Oklahoma State in the fourth quarter. Last season, a punt return for touchdown against LSU gave the Tide a 34-27 fourth-quarter lead.
His highlight-quality moves with the ball in his hands have left more than just Alabama’s fans wanting more; Arenas’ ability to make players miss has been noticed, as well, by even his teammates.
“Sometimes it's like, get a hand on my guy and then get out of the way, because I'm pretty sure Javy will make him miss (even) if I miss my block,” said safety Rashad Johnson, who also plays on Alabama’s punt return team. “When he gets the ball in his hands, it's definitely electrifying. Sometimes it's better to be on the sideline so you can watch him do what he does so you don't have to block for him.”
Tide quarterback John Parker Wilson is another who has taken notice.
“I mean, you never know what he's going to do,” Wilson said. “He's pretty good. Usually I get to go up there and walk up there and see it. I think everybody is interested in watching him.”
Before his career is over, Arenas’ end zone assault may shift its focus from opposing teams to the Alabama record books. In Alabama’s 20-6 win over Tulane this season, the 87-yard return was just part of a record-breaking night. In the game, Arenas made it quite obvious why avoiding him on special teams may be a smart move for Alabama’s opponents: on five punt returns and two kickoff returns, he netted 211 all-purpose yards and a touchdown.
Arenas exited the game early in the third quarter with a mild concussion, but his presence on the field had already long been felt—Arenas recorded 147 punt return yards, 141 of which came in the first half alone, breaking former Tide legend Harry Gilmer’s single-game punt return record of 122 yards.
It may not be the last record Arenas breaks at the Capstone. But even if there are more to come, Arenas isn’t likely to even notice. His focus, he said, is elsewhere.
“It means something to me now, but it'll mean more to me then,” Arenas said. “I'm just playing ball. I'm not really focusing on anything like that.”