The Most Feared Backup Punter in the Country: Alabama's Hard-Hitting Mack Wilson

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterJanuary 8, 2017

FAYETTEVILLE, AR - OCTOBER 8:  Mack Wilson #30 of the Alabama Crimson Tide warming up before a game against the Arkansas Razorbacks at Razorback Stadium on October 8, 2016 in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  The Crimson Tide defeated the Razorbacks 49-30.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

TAMPA, Fla. — He weighs 244 spectacular pounds. He last ran the 40 somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.6 seconds, by his best estimate. Earlier this year, he hit a player so hard that he apparently knocked out a tooth.

He was one of the most coveted football recruits in the class of 2016, a player so special that Nick Sabanthe Nick Saban—publicly dabbed to secure his commitment.

Though he is Reuben Foster’s backup on the depth chart, Lyndell "Mack" Wilson is perhaps the next great linebacker in a long line of great linebackers at Alabama.

"Everybody says he’s the young Foster. No, he’s the young Mack Wilson," Foster said. "He’s got his own style, and it’s tremendous."

Wilson is also the most unique, physically gifted backup punter in the history of the sport.

Yes, you read that right.

In true Alabama form, one of the best young defensive players in the country—a player tabbed as a 4- or 5-star prospect in the class of 2016 by most recruiting websites—is also Alabama’s flashy punting contingency.

And perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that he’s good at it, too.

"When he hits a good ball on a punt, he can compete with probably any punter in the country," Alabama’s starting punter JK Scott said of Wilson. "He can smoke a ball. He’s not as consistent, but he can really hammer it."

Nothing about this is normal. Rosters do not get so full of star power that some of it just so happens to slip into the punting position.

But Alabama is not normal. Neither is Wilson, for that matter.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

"The fact that he’s a 5-star linebacker and punting is weird," fellow linebacker Rashaan Evans said. "It’s a weird combination. It’s definitely unique. But I’m telling you, he’s one heck of an athlete."

On New Year’s Eve, minutes before Alabama began its slow, deliberate dissection of Washington in the Georgia Dome, Wilson stood in one end zone, launching punt after punt toward midfield. 

Not every punt was a perfect spiral. Not every one hung in the air for five seconds. But the majority of his blasts were serviceable at worst. Some were far better than that.

"I like watching him during pregame warm-ups," defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. "I always tell my wife not to bring my kid on the sideline in pregame when Mack is punting."

His teammates and coaches cannot help themselves. Nor should they.

After all, how many blue-chip defensive players spend considerable time doing things like this? How many 244-pound human missiles are a play away from being an integral cog in the biggest games of the season?

"It shocked me when I saw him practicing punting," Foster added. "Well, I can’t do that. I’m kind of jealous."

While it is a popular talking point among teammates, there is a certain layer of respect involved, as well.

In watching Wilson go through warm-ups, the entire sequence looked surprisingly natural for a player who will be a fixture on Alabama’s defense in the coming years.

Sure, the No. 30 doesn’t exactly scream punter. Neither does his build, which was constructed for something far more violent. But he clearly has put in a great deal of time and effort to make this look as normal as possible, and it shows.

"I have a lot of leg power," Wilson said during media day at the national championship, also noting that his longest punt to date is around 60 yards. "If I can get my technique down, I feel like I can be a good punter."

Wilson starred at Carver High School in Montgomery, Alabama, a mere two hours away from Tuscaloosa.

In his final two seasons, Wilson totaled more than 200 tackles, according to his Alabama bio. He quickly became one of the state’s most coveted prospects. Along the way, he picked up punting in 10th grade.

A teammate gave him the basics, and he took to it. Together they worked on the art of punting, which he strangely enjoyed. It wasn’t what he was known for in high school, but it became a part of his football life. 

After committing to Alabama on national signing day with a video that featured a heavy dose of explosive moments and a noticeable lack of punting, Wilson arrived in Tuscaloosa and gave a glimpse of what he could do.

"We knew he had some skills," special teams head coach Burton Burns said. "So we took a look at him in practice."

The coaches saw enough in this pseudo tryout to make Wilson the backup. While the hope has always been that his services will never be called upon as long as Scott is in the program, the option is there.

Scott, one of the nation’s elite punters, has offered guidance to the linebacker on occasion. Some of this advice has been incorporated. Some has not.

"I usually tell him to get the ball out there more," Scott says. "He’s always cramming himself."

While most linebackers speak solely of coverages and blitz packages and how much they love to hit—a passion that Wilson most certainly shares—he also shares a different language.

He speaks punter. Perhaps he’s not completely fluent, but he’s getting closer.

"I need to make sure my foot is flat," Wilson said while critiquing his own game. "I need to make sure I get it off on a good angle."

Punter and linebacker are not the only positions Wilson has focused on this season while adapting to the college level. He’s also the backup long snapper, another gift he acquired in high school.

Wilson also saw action on offense this season, which is atypical for Alabama defensive players, let alone true freshmen.

Used in a limited role at H-back, Wilson’s primary responsibility was to block. Against Kent State back in September, however, he jumped in front of tight end O.J. Howard and hauled in his first touchdown.

His biggest and most public impact at Alabama to date, however, came on kick coverage. Against Texas A&M earlier in the season, Wilson delivered two crushing hits on return man Speedy Noil.

One of those hits appeared to dislodge a tooth from Noil’s mouth. It was a hit bordering on the lines of legal. To some it was perhaps well beyond that line.

Regardless, his reputation at the program and with fans has not been the same since.

"You tend to maybe rewind the tape more than twice when it happens like that, because the players enjoy it," Burns said of the hit. "That’s part of what we do. It was special at the time, because of the impact of the hit. But he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing. I think it’s routine, really."

While he’s dabbled in other areas because of his wide range of skills, this is at the core of what Wilson loves to do.

Punting and long snapping are fine in small doses. Playing offense is an honor, and it’s something he’s happy to do. But in the end his favorite thing to do on the football field is simple.

"Hit people," he says when asked. He offers no other reasons as to why or when or how. To him, it doesn’t matter. He’ll take the contact any way he can get it. 

After his performance against Texas A&M, according to Wilson, teams adjusted. He began seeing double-teams more often and having fewer chances to make an impact.

After those loud, violent moments, this was anticipated.

"I feel like I’m going to get one this game," Wilson said of his next big hit. "It’s the last game, and I’m going to lay it all out on the line. I’m going to try my hardest to make it happen."

For a true freshman playing behind one of the most productive and explosive linebackers in program history, this is how to make a mark. Not through the most traditional avenues, but in ways that his abilities, which are far-reaching, can shine.

Soon, Wilson will likely be celebrated for something more. He will be one of the centerpieces of the best defense in the country. He will not be the next Reuben Foster, but rather a stronger, faster, more refined version of what he already is.

Alabama will eventually rely on him to be much more than a car crash on kick returns or a long snapper or an H-back or its unusual punting contingency plan.

For now, these are his roles, and he embraces each and every one of them.

During the national championship, Wilson will undoubtedly be called upon in some capacity. In the moments leading up to the start of the game, look for the punter standing in the end zone looking slightly out of place and strangely at home at the same time.

Then, once Alabama kicks to Clemson, listen for the sound.

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