Demetrius Hart hasn't played in a single game for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He's barely through his first week of spring practice. How in the world could he put Javier Arenas' SEC punt return record of 1,725 career yards in jeopardy, a record that previously stood for over sixty years? Hart hasn't even been named as the return man yet, either!
The two young men have a few things in common that make it possible.
Demetrius Hart's outlook for the Tide strongly resembles that of Javier Arenas when special teams are concerned. Arenas was not expected to play much at his primary position, cornerback, in his first year. Hart also isn't likely to get many snaps at running back with Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy expected to tote the rock, unless Lacy has a relapse of fumblitis.
Entering college, both Arenas and Hart were excellent candidates for returns.
Arenas and Hart are nearly identical physically. Arenas came out of high school standing at 5'9" and weighing around 185 lbs., varying by source. Hart is generously recorded at 5'9", 190 lbs., though he is likely closer to 5'8".
Arenas was known to be a speedy, elusive player. He could stop on a dime and change direction faster than a scared chicken being chased by a heavyweight boxer. This allowed him to stick to receivers like glue during defensive play, and juke would-be tacklers on special teams. Hart is just the same, but keyed in for running back as his primary position. Their 40-yard time is nearly identical coming out of high school as well; both ran about a 4.40.
The primary fact that could put the records at risk is that Javier Arenas started returning punts as a freshman, and did it well. He returned two for touchdowns in 2006. Demetrius Hart is a likely shoe-in for punt returns, as Marquis Maze will be needed more for wideout play with the absence of Julio Jones. Four years is a long time to accrue stats, but is also the only way to rack up that many yards.
Though Hart wasn't the return specialist Arenas was in high school, he still put up respectable numbers. He averaged over 15 yards per punt return and just under 20 yards per kickoff return.
With Trent Richardson becoming the primary running back, and a knee injury on his record from 2010, its possible Nick Saban may have him perform exclusive running back duties, much like he did with Mark Ingram. This would leave a spot open for kickoff returns as well.
Hart could become the kickoff returner for the Tide as well, just like Arenas did. Kickoff returns don't require as much elusiveness as punt returns as you have more time before the defenders reach you. This allowed Richardson to just run people over, which he excels at.
There is also an intangible fact that could be the difference between Hart and Arenas. Arenas, though always in spectacular shape, was still human. As a defensive player and a starter in the last half of his career, he performed the bulk of his duties just before he returned a punt. Cornerbacks get tired too, not just defensive linemen.
Hart, however, would be on the sideline for a full series before he stepped up to catch a punt. While we can't put a numeric value on tired vs. not tired, it's probably safe to assume Arenas just didn't have as much gas immediately after an opponent's drive.
The other X-factor would be experience from their primary position. Though good following his blockers, Arenas' main duty was shadowing receivers. Hart's main job is, at its very core, following blockers. Hart has been lauded as a smart, patient player that is outstanding at following his blockers correctly. Special teams is not always about speed.
Hart will easily compete for both punt and kickoff duties. There was a lot of player swapping for catching balls on special teams last year, so no one is set in stone. In addition, catching on special teams is one of the most dangerous roles in football. Keeping stars like Trent and Marquis out of the line of fire could have unseen benefits.
We can't predict the future, but all the pieces are there for Demetrius Hart to set some records of his own, and if he wins the position he will have four years to chase them.
If he doesn't achieve the lofty goal of dethroning Arenas so soon, he is still certain to make an impact on special teams anyway as well as out of the backfield, either carrying the rock or catching it.
Pound for pound, Javier Arenas was the biggest player to set foot in Bryant-Denny Stadium in the past decade. He played larger than his small frame should have been able to. Those are some big shoes to fill, and if Dee Hart lives up to the hype he'll do more than that.