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Florida Gators-Alabama Tide SEC title game could turn on punt returners

GAINESVILLE — Javier Arenas doesn't like to brag. In fact, he has a hard time talking about himself.

But Arenas likely had a hard time staying away from the subject of himself this week. The former standout at Tampa's Robinson High is in the spotlight as his undefeated, No. 1-ranked Alabama squad gets ready to play No. 2 Florida in Saturday's SEC title game.

Arenas and Florida's Brandon James, both juniors, are among the best return men in the SEC, and how they perform could have a huge impact on the outcome.

"I think he's electric," Florida coach Urban Meyer said of Arenas. "The area where he's really good is on punt returns. We're pretty good at that phase, but I'm not sure we have faced a challenge like this one. He's electric with the ball in his hands.

"This is a big matchup. This is going to be one of those games where it's hard to move the ball. I hope it's hard for them to move the ball. Every 10-yard increment is critical. It was hard two years ago (a 28-13 win in Gainesville), and it's going to be like that in this game."

Impact players

James is second in the SEC and 11th in the nation at 14.67 yards per punt return (33 for 484 yards). Arenas is third and 12th, respectively, at 14.66 (38 for 557 yards). Both have returned two for touchdowns, James with a long of 78 yards and Arenas 87.

At 5 feet 8, James possesses speed along with an ability to get lost behind his blockers and break free in the open field. Arenas, at 5-9, also is lightning quick. And both pull double duty. James is a running back and Arenas one of the Tide's best defensive backs.

Why they will matter

Both teams have been stingy on defense, Florida allowing 12.2 points per game and Alabama 12.6.

So conventional wisdom says yards and points will be hard to come by. Arenas and James have the ability to change a game with touchdowns or by getting their team great field position.

Arenas on Arenas

"When I go back there, I trust my blockers, so I don't even think about what they are doing. I go with my instincts and move on their blocks. Then I have so much confidence — and I know what they are going to do for me — that I feel like we're going to score every time.

"Then I feel as though I have the ability to make guys miss if I have to. It doesn't get any better than that, the combination of great guys blocking and a decent return guy. So when I'm back there, I'm thinking touchdown. The most important thing is catching the ball. After that, it's all instinct."

James on James

"I'm always thinking just make the plays; big plays. I just try to change field position for our team and put the offense in a good situation. It's a combination of speed and just instinct. I don't really think about it. I just react to what my guys are giving me."

The turning point

"The (return game) is going to have a big impact on the game," Meyer said. "Any championship level game, the field position element is huge."

Florida Gators-Alabama Tide SEC title game could turn on punt returners 12/04/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 7, 2008 11:42am]
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