GAINESVILLE — Javier Arenas would like to tell you that his success as a return specialist at Alabama is something tangible, something learned. He'd like to be able to explain how he has managed to set multiple school and SEC records and what has made him one of the most feared return men in the SEC.
But the reality is, he can't. It's just not something that's easily explained.
"I can't really tell you," Arenas said. "I guess being a return man is more of a natural ability as opposed to something being taught. I just go out there and I do what I've been blessed with. I guess you could say I'm quick. And I've got great blockers, and as a punt return unit, we try to excel, and we try to execute each assignment in order to put ourselves in a position to be successful. So it's a unit. It's a unit thing, and it's all 11 of us working together. But me, individually, when you ask that question, I think it's just my natural ability."
When No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama meet Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, the Gators will have a keen eye out for Arenas and the Crimson Tide special teams unit, which ranks second in the league in punt return average — led by Arenas.
"Arenas is as good as there is," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "He'll be a great returner at the next level, too."
He has already been a record-setting one in the SEC. In his four-year career, the former Tampa Robinson standout has broken all of Alabama's punt return records. In last week's win over Auburn, Arenas became the SEC's career punt return yardage leader. His 1,725 yards surpassed Vanderbilt's Lee Nalley (1,695 in 1947-49). He owns the SEC record for career punt returns for touchdowns (seven), needs just 37 yards to become the NCAA leader in career punt return yards and is one touchdown shy of the NCAA mark.
"He's a great competitor, first of all," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "And he's got a real good feel for picking lanes, and he's got a great quickness, can make the first guy miss and has good acceleration. But he's just a natural return guy. He's done a fantastic job of that his entire career. And he certainly has made some big plays for us through the course of this season and last season. And we just keep trying to work to find ways that we can help him make plays."
Arenas has honed his skills as a standout defensive back and one of the most valuable players on a defense that ranks among the top five in nearly every national statistical category. Arenas is tied for the team lead with 12 tackles for loss and has five sacks. And it's that improvement he's most proud of.
"First and foremost, I think people used to know me and recognize me off my return game; I think they recognize me now as a cornerback," Arenas said. "And the stuff that they see and the stuff I'm about to say, I think a lot of people would agree with: With the things Coach Saban implemented, I think it's put me in a position to be successful off blitzes, the techniques and the type of coverage that we play. I think it helps a lot. And as a team unit and just my mentality, I think all that plays a vital role in me becoming a better defensive back."
He has become the kind of all-around player Florida knows can be dangerous this Saturday.
"I think he's a great player," Florida quarterback Tim Tebow said. "I think he does a lot for their team on defense, special teams, all the stuff that he does. So I think you have to be aware of him."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3389.