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September 30, 2009

Sack of all trades

TUSCALOOSA | The list of Southeastern Conference sack leaders is pretty imposing.

There's South Carolina linebacker Eric Norwood, who already has six, imposing defensive ends Chris Walker of Tennessee and fellow Gamecock Cliff Matthews both with four, followed by University of Alabama sophomore end Marcell Dareus with 3.

Tied for fifth, looking like he should be singing Sesame Street's "One Of These Things (Is Not Like The Others)" is 5-foot-9 Crimson Tide senior cornerback Javier Arenas, who last Saturday brought down 6-7 Ryan Mallett twice to give him three sacks on the season.

On the first he blitzed behind other players and zipped around the corner so quickly that the Arkansas quarterback's only chance was to try and shed the hit, while the second was a play-call to counter a bootleg and completed in the blink of an eye by a near-perfect tackle.

"Scary, I didn't think he was going down," Arenas said of his first multi-sack game. "That guy was big."

Considering his burst of speed and knack for making plays, perhaps nothing Arenas does should be considered surprising anymore. Although he first made his mark as a return specialist, through sheer will and hard work Arenas also became a starting cornerback and has developed into one of the SEC's best.

Another way it's paid off is he's within reach of conference and national records after establishing new punt-return highs at Alabama. The NCAA active leader in career punt returns, yards, touchdowns, returns per game and yards per game, Arenas is 165 punt-return yards away from breaking Lee Nalley's long-standing SEC record of 1,472 (102 returns for a 14.4 average) set in 1947-1949.

That was also the national record until Texas Tech's Wes Welker broke it in 2003. Arenas needs 231 more to top Welker's 1,761.

By averaging 19.0 yards per punt return this season, which leads the SEC by almost eight yards per return (Marshay Green of Ole Miss, 11.2), at his current pace Arenas will set the SEC record against South Carolina, and the national mark the following week against Tennessee.

Additionally, Arenas is fifth in SEC career return yards (punt and kick) with 3,237. Florida's Brandon James just took over the all-time lead at 3,381 (1,143 punt, 2,238 kick), surpassing Kentucky's Derek Abney (3,357, 2000-03).

"I think it's a combination of things," Coach Nick Saban said. "He is a great competitor, number one. He has that burning desire that we talk about to be the best and to do well. He also has good judgment. He is good at securing the ball, he always has been. He's got great quickness and good vision in terms of picking the right spots in space. He's a fantastic talent and he's got the right attitude to want to be the best at it and does a fantastic job.

"Our guys kind of feed on that too especially on punt returns. They get him blocked up pretty good too so he has a good chance. Once he gets started and they take care of the gunners and he gets started and they all stay on their guy, then we have a chance to have a big play and that's going to have a significant impact on the game."

Those 19 yards per return can be viewed a couple of different way, as cutting the distance punted in half or adding nearly two first downs. That's despite Arenas calling for more fair catches, although it pains him do so, especially when he looks up and sees open space.

"That's pretty frustrating, because that could have been the one," Arenas said. "I hate calling them sometimes, that's why I wave my hand only one time, 'cause the referee may not see it. I hate doing it, but it's safe.

"That's something I learned when Saban got here. He taught me to make better decisions."
The human spark plug is just probably just getting started this season. He doesn't have an interception yet, with very few passes thrown his way, nor a touchdown after entering the season with seven. Yet he's already added sack leader to his impressive football resume of cornerback, kick returner and punt returner.

What's next, defensive end and special instruction from pass-rushing guru Sal Sunseri?

"I think he's scouting me over there," Arenas joked.


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