(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The Tight End position has steadily grown in importance since Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa with an increased focus on recruiting athletic prospects that can contribute both as blockers and in the passing game. Last season the departed Brad Smelley was second on the team in both number of receptions and receiving yards, while players like Preston Dial and Colin Peek before him put up similar numbers. Finding players to continue that production is one of the more important yet seemingly under the radar position battles going on in fall camp, with only senior Michael Williams returning with any significant game time.
Williams has been a silent workhorse over the last few seasons with 26 starts under his belt as the Tide’s best blocking TE. Though he has contributed in the passing game - most notably with touchdown grabs against Florida, Penn State, and Arkansas - Williams has typically yielded the pass catching duties to the more athletic players surrounding him. But as the veteran of the group this year there is an expectation that he will take on a more prominent role. With a new offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa, Williams has embraced the opportunity to contribute more to the offense.
"I like my job right now," Williams said. "As a tight end, I would love to catch more passes. I don’t think anyone would say they wouldn’t want to catch more passes. And I am comfortable with that. It’s more of coming in on third down and get us first downs. More stretching the field. More just being an all-around tight end than just blocking."
With Williams set as the lead tight end, finding players to compliment him has become a priority. One of the biggest surprises of fall camp has been Jalston Fowler working with the TEs. Fowler led the running backs through spring in Eddie Lacy’s absence, but with Lacy’s return and the emergence of true freshman T.J. Yeldon, utilizing Fowler in an H-back type role gives the Tide offense one more wrinkle to throw at opposing defenses. Michael Williams is already pointing out the value Fowler brings to the position:
"Fowler fits the mold of a tight end," Michael Williams said. "He's big, he's strong, he has good blocking skills, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. As good as he is, you don't want him coming off the field, so he can help us at H, too."
Fowler’s move to TE/H-back could also be seen as an indication that redshirt freshman Brent Calloway is still struggling to learn his third position at Alabama despite showing promise in the spring. Recruited as a running back before being moved to linebacker in 2011, Calloway struggled to find a place at two of the more loaded positions on the Tide roster. At 6-1 217 redshirt freshman is the smallest of the bunch, but the staff is giving him a look as an H-back in the hopes his athleticism will be an asset in the passing game. Calloway worked with the second team offense on A Day, grabbing two passes for 18 yards, but it’s looking more and more like he needs further time at the position to develop before he can be a significant contributor.
Brian Vogler, a 6-7 258 sophomore, came out of spring practice as the odds on favorite to replace Brad Smelley as the go to receiver from the TE position. A "Bart Starr Most Improved Player Award" recipient, Vogler caught three passes for 46 yards while working with the first team on A Day. His size makes him a match up nightmare for most linebackers and safeties, but questions remain about his consistency as a blocker.
Behind Williams, Fowler, and Vogler, the Tide has precious little experience though we have recruited well in recent years. Harrison Jones, the younger brother of Barrett Jones, saw time in eight games last season as a backup, grabbing one pass against Vanderbilt. Rated the #9 TE in the country by ESPN, Jones will likely contribute this season in a limited capacity, but he has the potential to continue and develop into a greater role over the next few seasons.
Malcolm Faciane, a 6-5 259 redshirt freshman, was a four star prospect and the #4 TE in the nation according to ESPN. Faciane was recruited specifically for his abilities as a pass catcher, but it was understood he would need significant work in the strength and conditioning program and development as a blocker before he saw the field in any meaningful capacity.
Finally, Kurt Freitag was the only TE signed by the Tide in 2012. At 6-4 240, Freitag was rated a four star prospect and the nation’s #13 TE by ESPN, and fits the mold of the all around blocking/pass catching TE that we’re looking for.