Column: Mario Alford the next Devin Hester?


Many different reports are indicating that newly signed draft pick, former West Virginia wide receiver, Mario Alford will be used almost exclusively as a special teams player for the Cincinnati Bengals.

When thinking of the best special teams players the NFL has ever had to offer over the years, one player immediately comes to mind.

Devin Hester.

Fast, shifty and a playmaker are just a few adjectives to describe the highlight reel returner. Hester has been in the in the league for nine seasons now. He spent eight of those seasons with the Chicago Bears where he made a name for himself returning punts and kicks.

Hester holds the record for all-time punt return touchdowns (14) and is ranked fourth in most punt return-yards with 3,481.

He made watching punts and kick returns fun. Always waiting to see just what kind of magic Hester could conjure up on a punt return made for many, many highlights and Sports Center Top 10 plays.

Clearly Hester has made his career on special teams. His stats for being a wide receiver aren’t nearly as impressive. Hester was still a threat in the receiving game, but his presence was felt every time he took a kick to the house.

Oct 4, 2014; Morgantown, WV, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers wide receiver Mario Alford (5) returns the opening kick-off against the Kansas Jayhawks during the first quarter at Milan Puskar Stadium. West Virginia won 33-14. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Mario Alford has the ability to be Hester-like. Obviously, he possess the speed. A 4.2 40-yard dash made that very clear. Maybe he doesn’t have the caliber of fast cuts and dance moves that Hester had, but it’s still early.

While at West Virginia, in two seasons, Alford accumulated 972 total special teams yards and two touchdowns. His longest was a 100-yard kick return.

Alford, however, was a big contributor to the receiving game as well. With 1,497-yards and 13 touchdowns, Alford was the complement for first-round draft pick, former West Virginia wide receiver, Kevin White.

Hester scored no receiving touchdowns while at Miami and was a clear cut “special teams guy.”

Hester in three seasons with the Miami Hurricanes scored two kick return touchdowns, but wracked up 638-yards and four punt return touchdowns.

Alford, much like the entire special teams for West Virginia, struggled in the punt return game.

The Mountaineers were constantly trying out new returners as most failed to cleanly catch punts or make smart decisions.

Unlike Hester, Alford’s stats for punt returns is horrendous. In two seasons, Alford amassed -4.3 yards.

A not-so-appealing stat for a team trying to make Alford their special teams specialist. The general consensus, however, is that Alford’s speed is what makes him an ideal candidate to bust off big-time gains in both punt returns and kick returns.

There has to be emphasis on improving Alford’s punt returning skills. His collegiate stats speak for themselves, but with the kick returning being the way it is in the NFL, it’s very rare that we see a kick returned for a touchdown.

With kicks being moved up and kickers being top-notch, booting the ball through the back of the end zone, returners aren’t getting the chance they once had. That rule isn’t changing, which reiterates the point of making Alford a better punt returner.

If Alford can get the right coaching and improve his ability to field punts and make smart decisions then it comes down to what Alford does best — run.

Speed kills and Alford’s is deadly.

It’s not to say he can’t pan out to be a good or even great receiver for the Bengals down the road, it just appears that’s not the direction Cincinnati wants to take him in.

Hester didn’t and still doesn’t fully excel as a wide receiver. He’ll go down as one of the best to ever play special teams.

Alford won’t be Hester right out of the gate. He may need a season or two, but if he can get the gist of fielding punts, making people miss and turning on his 4.2 speed then Alford will be in position to be a terrific special teams player in the NFL.