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September 11, 2009It was early in the third quarter and the University of Alabama football team was up only 10-3 against a winless visitor playing without nine starters and nine reserves who had been suspended or dismissed for their part in a brawl in the previous game at Miami.
Starting quarterback John Parker Wilson had limped off the field on the final drive of the first half after aggravating a sprained left ankle, the Crimson Tide's only touchdown had to be set up by a blocked punt by Forress Rayford, and Florida International had even managed a goal-line stand despite its depleted ranks (traveling with 52 players, including some injured).
That's when Javier Arenas, a freshman from the Sunshine State who had shown some flashes returning punts and kicks, made his initial mark on the Capstone, returning a punt 65 yards into the end zone to spark a 28-point second half.
"My first touchdown, on my birthday too," Arenas recalled. "Kind of got my feet wet, so to speak."
What made it even more fitting, in a way, was that Florida International was one of only a couple of Bowl Subdivision teams to recruit Arenas out of Tampa Robinson High School, Florida Atlantic being another. Most considered him too small for the SEC and other top divisions (Arenas is now listed at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds), yet that didn't keep special teams coach Dave Ungerer from fighting like crazy for Mike Shula to give him a scholarship.
Saturday, the Panthers will see a much different Arenas when they return to Bryant-Denny Stadium, although pass-friendly FIU remains the kind of opponent he can thrive against. Not only has Arenas become a standout starting cornerback whom opponents don't like to challenge, but he's the active NCAA leader in career punt returns (96), punt-return yards (1,274), and punt-return touchdowns (six, which tied the Southeastern Conference record).
And it really all began against FIU.
The return was Alabama's first for a touchdown since Shaud Williams (73 yards) against South Florida in 2003, Shula's first game as head coach, and came during Shula's final win with the Tide.
"The kicker, I don't know if he was having a bad day or what, had a few short kicks that day and I was focusing on fielding the ball," Arenas said. "That one particular play was a short kick and I came up and fielded the ball and just I ran toward the sideline. I was just heading toward the sideline just to run and then everything started to open up and everybody was setting great blocks, so I just followed them up the sideline and scored eventually."
The punt traveled only 35 yards with 3.2 seconds of hang time, not allowing the other Panthers to get down field effectively. Demarcus Waldrop made the first big hit on the return, followed by Simeon Castille laying out an unsuspecting victim. Once he made it near the sideline, Arenas faked out the punter with Ali Sharrief taking out the final opponent.
"Anytime that happens, that is big," fullback Tim Castille said after the game.
But the last thing No. 4 Alabama (1-0) will want Saturday is to be in that situation again, needing a second-half spark in order to avoid the risk of a major upset. Letdowns have been an issue with the Tide and Florida International has had all offseason to prepare as this is its season opener.
"If we look at any team like that, they'll creep up on you," Arenas said. "I think we look at Louisiana-Monroe like that (in 2007), and they crept up and beat us.
"If you're sitting in the stands, as a spectator, you're free to feel that way, but when you have to physically be out there and mentally you can't think like that because you set yourself up for failure."
Arenas will also have the extra task of occasionally lining up across from FIU's most prolific offensive threat, T.Y. Hilton, for the game's most electrifying matchup. The fellow fast Floridian is a 5-foot-9, 168-pound sophomore wide receiver who after signing with FIU promised to score the first time he touched the ball in a college game and then did just that.
"Confidence, I guess," Arenas said. "I like the challenge.
Hilton had 41 receptions for 1,013 yards and seven touchdowns last season, and finished third nationally with 180.25 all-purpose yards per game. He was also ninth in punt-return yards (14.78), and set a school record with 199 receiving yards against Arkansas State.
"He's as good a player as anybody in the country," Coach Nick Saban said.
It almost makes one wonder if Arenas might feel like he's looking into a mirror, and think about might what have been, when he finally faces Hilton.
"He's dynamic," Arenas said. "We have to bring our A game."
Arenas' punt returns for touchdowns
Oct. 28, 2006: His 65-yard punt return sparked a 28-point second half as Alabama defeated Florida International, 38-3.
Dec. 28, 2006: The 86-yard punt return in fourth quarter vs. Oklahoma State in Petro Sun Independence Bowl set both the Alabama bowl game and Independence Bowl record for longest return.
Nov. 3, 2007: Arenas' 61-yard punt return in fourth quarter vs. No. 3 LSU at Bryant-Denny Stadium gave the Tide a 34-27 lead with 7:33 remaining in the game. However, the Tide lost 41-34.
Sept. 6, 2008: The 87-yard punt return in first quarter vs. Tulane at Bryant-Denny Stadium helped Arenas set the school record for punt return yards in a single game (147), breaking Harry Gilmer's record of 122 yards against Georgia set on Oct. 25, 1947.
Nov. 15, 2008: The 80-yard punt return in third quarter against Mississippi State at Bryant-Denny Stadium broke his own school record for punt return yards in a single game (153).
Jan. 1, 2009: Arenas scored on a 73-yard punt return in third quarter against Utah in the Sugar Bowl, but Alabama lost 31-17.