In part three of our spring preview we’ll turn our attention to the tight ends. Other previews tend to lump the tight ends in with the wide receivers but I feel that is an injustice to the position. Take a look at today’s NFL offenses – particularly the New England Patriots. The usage of the two tight end formation has increased quite a bit over the last few years and the ability to find an Aaron Hernandez or a Rob Gronkowski has transformed the Patriots’ offense significantly. Now, you see these big, athletic TE’s flexed out as wide receivers and they pose a tremendous matchup problem for the defenses. If you try to cover them with a LB, the ‘backer is usually too slow or not agile enough to stay with these fleet footed TEs. But, if you slide a safety down to cover the TE, then the safety is simply too short and too light to hang with these huge power forwards. As the NFL TE usage has evolved, it’s interesting to see Alabama’s future evolving as well.
At Alabama, the tight end position has essentially mostly been used as a glorified third tackle. Lamonde Russell was probably the last legitimate receiving threat from the position – at least in the way that we look at the Aaron Hernandezs or the Rob Gronkowskis of the world. Since Coach Saban arrived on campus, the top tight ends have been Travis McCall, Nick Walker, Preston Dial, Colin Peek, Brad Smelley (really more of an H-Back) and Michael Williams and all but Smelley had the task of being a blocker first, a blocker second and then a receiver third. But, this season, things could be decidedly different with the addition of a young stud named OJ Howard…
O.J. Howard – 6’5, 225 True Freshman
This will be the only positional write up that features a true freshman at the top but, man, this kid is going to be special. And, thankfully, Mr Howard is an early enrollee so he’s getting to know the playbook this spring in an effort to become a considerable weapon for the offense this season. Howard is listed as a five star TE by every recruiting service – even the blind can feel his immense playmaking ability! Howard has absolutely owned every 7 on 7 camp he’s participated in, showing the size and speed of an elite WR but the strength of a TE. While it’s true he’ll need to bulk up a bit over his career (and he’ll certainly need to refine his blocking skills), the thought of lining this stud of an athlete up against a LB or a safety is the stuff drool is made of. Personally, I’m going to tune into A-Day just to see this kid make some plays. Seam route, anyone?
Brian Vogler – 6’7, 258 Junior
At the end of last season, Vogler began to emerge as a better than average blocker. In fact, it was Vogler who opened numerous running lanes against the vaunted Georgia defense in the SEC Championship Game. Early in his career, Vogler really didn’t impress much either as a blocker or as a receiver. However, toward the middle or latter part of last season something clicked and he suddenly became a valuable asset to offensive line as an in-line TE. Coming out of high school, Vogler was seen as a receiver first and a blocker second so he definitely has the skill set to become a complete tight end. Unfortunately for Bama, as good as Vogler can be, he’ll never come close to being the blocker that Michael Williams was and this will be a huge void in the Tide’s running game unless Vogler continues to improve by leaps and bounds.
Harrison Jones – 6’4, 244 Junior
This spring will be a huge spring for Barrett’s younger brother because he really needs to assert himself as the #2 tight end behind Brian Vogler. In the running sets, you won’t see OJ Howard out there because the Tide staff will want Vogler’s size and strength as an in-line TE. If something happens to Vogler, the race will be on to see which one of Harrison Jones, Malcom Faciane or Kurt Freitag will be next in line to be Alabama’s #1 in-line tight end. Jones came on last season as the #3 tight end in goal line situations and he typically fared fairly well with his assignments. Working as the tight end with the second string line, Jones was usually able to generate a push and turn the defenders out so as to open up a running lane. It doesn’t appear that Jones has the athleticism of Vogler but he seems to be well ahead of Faciane as a blocker (I’m guessing having an Outland/Rimington trophy winning brother helps with getting down the techniques). With that being the case, we think it comes down to Harrison Jones and Kurt Freitag to see who the #2 in-line TE will be.
Kurt Freitag – 6’4, 240 Redshirt Freshman
The word on the street is that Freitag showed out a little bit last year as the scout team tight end and, after viewing his high school film, it’s no wonder. Freitag appears to be very athletic on film, showing a good set of hands and a decent amount of agility and foot speed. At 240 lbs, Freitag is a wee bit on the light side for a prototypical Saban tight end but then this is a problem for nearly every TE on the roster. For Freitag to earn playing time, he’s going to have to show himself as a very, very good blocker – at least as good of a blocker as Harrison Jones is. If Freitag can do this, then I’d look for him to be used as an H-back or a second tight end in numerous situations. But, it will take a huge spring for him to do this because you have to know Howard will be your receiving TE and Vogler/Jones will be your blocking TEs. Again, we predict a lot of H-back in Kurt’s future…
Malcom Faciane – 6’5, 259 Sophomore
When Faciane was signed out of Mississippi, I was elated because he carries the size that Nick loves at the TE spot. With Michael Williams and his 270 lbs of beastliness departing, someone is going to have to attempt to fill those shoes. As you scan back up the roster, take a look at the weights of the tight ends listed above Faciane: Freitag (240), Jones (244), Howard (225) and Vogler (258). I’m not a math major but I can tell you that Faciane is bigger than everyone else listed at the TE position so it should be expected that big Malcom become a literally huge component of the Tide’s line. However, you saw last year that he received only a few snaps and was lagging very far behind Vogler and Jones. With Freitag emerging as a TE and with Vogler and Jones likely staying far ahead of Faciane, it’s a massive, massive spring for the kid. Unless the same light bulb goes off for Faciane that went off for Vogler last season, I don’t look for much production from Malcom since he really did not perform well the few times he was given the opportunity last season.
With Kelly Johnson and Brent Calloway moving on, the door is wide open for the likes of OJ Howard, Kurt Freitag and our ole buddy Jalston Fowler to assume the role of H-Back. We really think Howard will be utilized here in passing situations as they attempt to get him lined up on some poor plodding linebacker. But, when it’s time to bring the noise and swing the Yellowhammer, I think “The Beast” will come out to inflict some carnage. Jalston Fowler was constructed for the H-Back position so I think you’ll see him line up as a fullback, a second tight end and a motioning H-Back next season.
Jalston Fowler – 6’1, 242 Junior
After taking a medical redshirt last season, the big Beast is back and more ripped than ever. I kind of doubt they’ll be showcasing him as an H-Back during A-Day but I do think they want his size, speed and strength on the field as much as possible. The other H-Backs have been Brad Smelley, Preston Dial and Nick Walker (to a degree, anyway). No offense intended to any of those three athletes but Nudie (his nickname, not mine) is a waaaaaay better athlete and he honestly couldn’t be any better build for this position. Yeah, I know, he can block and he can run but can he catch???? Check out his one handed You Tube catch and judge for yourself….
The depth of talent that Nick Saban has amassed at Alabama is mind boggling. When you see the Tide trot onto the field, you see some of the largest and best athletes in the country but typically you won’t see any of them grouped with the tight ends. This season, we expect things to be very different because the additions of OJ Howard and Jalston Fowler (H-Back) should be tremendous upgrade for the position. The only concern (and it’s a big concern) is the fact that Michael Williams’ blocking is no longer there. Williams’ ability to turn his defender and create running lanes was very underappreciated and we think the running game will suffer a bit because of it. With three new offensive linemen and a new blocking tight end, it will be interesting to see how many times the Tide is facing 2nd and 5 as opposed to 2nd and 8 yards to go. Again, Brian Vogler really came on last year and was a key component in the running game so it’s not like all is lost at the blocking TE position. But, the guess here is that Alabama will encounter more passing situations than usual this season so we look for OJ Howard and Fowler to become important targets in the passing game this year. Both will have the ability to dominate their one on one matchups and both have the hands to become reliable receivers for AJ McCarron so it only makes sense that they’ll be used similarly to guys like Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, right?