With the season now less than two months away, we're going to start previewing this year's model of the Crimson Tide with a handful of profiles on players that are going to have to step up and contribute to a greater degree if we're going to be as successful in 2011 as we all think and hope we'll be. First up is a young man that's been a quiet contributor for three years now, but now has a golden opportunity to see plenty of snaps at a position that has grown in importance at Alabama ever since the hiring of Jim McElwain. McElwain has been very open about his preference for using TEs instead of fullbacks, and outside of niche packages/roles in goal line and short yardage situations the true blocking fullback is now a thing of the past in Tuscaloosa. While Roy Upchruch and Jalston Folwer have both lined up there over the past few seasons, don't expect the I-Formation to become a staple of the regular offense any time soon. Which brings us to our first man under the microscope, Mr. Brad Smelley.
A high school quarterback, Smelley quickly made the transition to the TE and got on the field as a true freshman in 2008. Though Nick Walker and Travis McCall were the real workhorses of the offense, with Walker providing the first real pass catching threat from the TE position since...forever, Smelley's relatively small size and better athleticism gave him an advantage in the passing game, so much so that the staff burned his redshirt against Ole Miss to get him on the field. In the final eight games, he caught seven passes for 98 yards, averaging 14.0 yards per catch, and was an important target for the Tide on third down, with five of his seven catches going for first downs and four of those coming on third down.
With a solid true freshman campaign under his belt most (including myself) expected big things out of Smelley in 2009. Unfortunately, with Colin Peek finally eligible and the development of both Preston Dial and Michael Williams, questions concerning Smelley's consistency in run blocking caused his role to be limited to playing receiver in spread looks and special teams. Though he played in every game and had the same number of receptions with seven, his yardage and per game/catch totals decreased significantly. The same can be said for 2010. His production was roughly similar (6 catches for 55 yards), and he managed to get on the field in every game, but with both Dial and Williams shouldering most of the load in the Tide's base offense (and Chris Underwood oftentimes coming in as the third TE in heavy packages), Smelley was relegated to special teams, flexing out to receiver in spread sets, and getting in on mop up duty.
So what about 2011? Dial has graduated, and both Williams and Underwood are first and foremost run blocking TEs. Though Williams caught 8 passes for 100 yards and a TD in 2010, his lone TD and longest catch of the year came on a trick play out of the Wildcat. In other words, not exactly the Colin Peek style downfield threat we're looking for. Looking at the rest of the depth chart, we're either going to have to essentially eliminate the TE from the passing game, or find someone that can give us more than a handful of yards on dump off passes, and Smelley is the best looking option on the roster right now. He worked alongside Williams with the first team offense on A Day and was given the Jerry Duncan "I Like to Practice" Award at the conclusion of spring camp, so odds are that the staff feels like he gives them to best option to fill Dial's shoes at H-Back. Can he step up and show enough improvement as a run blocker in 2011 to be a bigger part of the offense? Only time will tell, but with a new starter under center and a receiving corps in flux, finding a solid downfield threat from the TE position would go a long way towards keeping the Tide offense from regressing this season.