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Javier Arenas, Alabama’s small wonder, will battle Texas on multiple fronts

At 5 feet 9 and 195 pounds, Javier Arenas will be one of the smallest players on the field tonight at the Rose Bowl. He is also among the players most likely to have a huge effect on the outcome of the Bowl Championship Series title game.

The Alabama senior has game-changing potential at three positions.

He is the most productive punt returner in Southeastern Conference history, averaging 16.3 yards a return this season. When returning kickoffs, he has a 29-yard average.

Arenas is good at his regular job too. He was a first-team All-America selection at cornerback and a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which goes to college football’s top defensive back.

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“Maybe if we had him a little bit longer,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said, “the guy could make some plays on offense too.”

Arenas will be plenty busy tonight without that responsibility.

About 70% of the time, Alabama’s defensive backfield uses a scheme in which Arenas plays near the line of scrimmage in a position known, in Crimson Tide lexicon, as the “star.”

From there, he’ll be shadowing Texas’ All-American wide receiver Jordan Shipley, who set school records with 106 receptions and 1,363 receiving yards, and also trying to make Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy uncomfortable.

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Arenas “has a tremendous amount of production there because he’s a good blitzer,” Saban said. “He’s fast, he’s quick, he’s very powerful, he can change direction, and he’s a good tackler.”

Arenas’ 66 tackles, which include 12 for losses, is third on a team that ranked among the nation’s top seven in every major statistical category. He also has five sacks for a team-best 53 yards in losses.

Yet, it’s as a kick returner that the diminutive Arenas really stands tall.

After breaking a 60-year-old conference record for punt-return yardage in November, he enters tonight’s game just 29 yards and one touchdown shy of NCAA records in both departments. Add his 551 yards returning kickoffs and Arenas is averaging 87.2 yards a game in all-purpose yardage for Alabama, second on the team behind Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Mark Ingram.

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“You can’t think too much,” Arenas said of his kick-return philosophy. “You can’t have any anxieties out there because that’s when the mistakes come.

“Just do what you do, is the best way to sum it up. Go out with the mentality to make a play, but don’t try to be Superman. . . . That’s when dumb mistakes come, when guys try to be superheroes out there.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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