Tide’s Arenas supplying big plays in return game

Published 9:12 pm Thursday, September 11, 2008

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – Javier Arenas was going the wrong way.

He fielded the punt, spun away from a defender, reversed field and eventually made his way toward the end zone for an 87-yard return and yet another big play for No. 11 Alabama against Tulane.

“When he popped out the back door, I’m thinking, ‘What is he doing?'” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. “Two seconds later you’re saying, He may go all the way.”

It’s an increasingly familiar refrain whenever Arenas fields a punt with a little open space. The junior, also a starting cornerback, tied David Palmer’s 15-year-old school record with his fourth punt return for a touchdown.

Arenas enters Saturday night’s game against Western Kentucky ranked seventh nationally with an average of more than 24 yards per return. He also broke Harry Gilmer’s 61-year-old mark for single-game return yards with 147 against Tulane.

Arenas downplays the records, treating them like a return and keeping his eyes focused in front of him. When he graduates, then there will be time to look back.

“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.”

Arenas was forced to improvise on his 87-yarder and didn’t reverse directions on purpose. He’ll take the result, though.

“I was trying to go forward,” he said. “A guy grabbed me and slung me around; that’s the only reason why I went backwards. I didn’t intend on going backwards. After that, I just had to make the best of the situation so I just cut across the field. After that, my blockers took over. Guys made great blocks.”

Later in the game, a hard hit briefly knocked Arenas out, prompting the fans to chant his name. He felt fine a few minutes later and has been cleared to play against Western Kentucky. Trainers wouldn’t let him back in the game as a precaution.

“They took my helmet, man,” he groused.

Arenas’ returns have been a boost for a team that hasn’t supplied many big plays on offense. The Tide’s longest run is 28 yards and the longest pass is 24. Arenas has been getting about that on average.

No wonder teammates and fans alike keep a close eye when he lines up to take a punt.

“I mean, you never know what he’s going to do,” quarterback John Parker 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.”

Safety Rashad Johnson is on the punt return team, but sometimes wishes he could be a spectator.

“Sometimes it’s just get a hand on my guy and then get out of the way, because I’m pretty sure Javy will make him miss if I miss that block,” Johnson said. “When he gets the ball in his hands it’s definitely electrifying. It’s better to be on the sidelines so you can see him do what he does than to be on the field blocking for him.”

The long returns ensures one thing: Arenas is still talked about more as a return man than a cornerback despite working his way into a starting job on defense.

He hasn’t had all that many chances to rack up defensive stats. Arenas has six tackles and no pass breakups, partly because teams haven’t tried to challenge him often even though he’s the new guy opposite Kareem Jackson.

Arenas attributes some of that to the fact that he doesn’t carry himself like a new guy. He said he even looks to the opposing sidelines trying to goad a coach into testing him.

“I’m not surprised. I’ve got a swagger out there,” he said. “I look like I’ve been out there for like 17 years. I’m not thinking about that. If I thought about that, I’d be out there all stiff and nervous and jumping around.

“And college coaches are college coaches for a reason: They’ll notice that and they’ll attack.”