In the last two weeks, we’ve gone in depth in the trenches for all of Alabama’s shiny new players on the offensive line and defensive line. This time around, I want to spend some time on the guys who will be catching the passes from Alabama’s next Heisman snub.
Here’s my usual set of rules for my methodology on these Meet the New Guys pieces:
Over the years, I’ve used SPARQ as a metric for quantifying athleticism and normalizing just how athletic someone is relative to his position. If you want a more in depth explanation, click the link below:
If not, the TL;DR version is this: Bigger, faster, and stronger = higher score.
Unfortunately, this specific class of Alabama recruits were not as active in Nike’s camps as many other classes in the past, so less than half of the recruits actually have SPARQ scores this year. I do, however, have a huge database of previous recruits with scores, so for some players that took an incomplete set of tests, I can actually get a pretty decent estimate just based on previous athletic comps. But I’ll always denote which tests are verified and which are “fill-in-the-blanks”
Finally, for all rankings, I will use the 247Sports Composite, which takes into account the 247, Rivals, and ESPN player rankings. Each of the three differ slightly, so for solidarity, I stick with the composite every year.
This year, there are three wide receivers with very different body types coming in, a lowly rated tight end out of a tiny school in Ohio, and a grad transfer tight end from North Carolina all joining the Tide and looking to bolster the all-time great historic receiving corps as Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III move to the pros.
Now, there are some players that could wind up playing here, such as Drew Sanders and Brian Branch, but I expect them to play defense at Alabama, so I’ll talk about them in those articles (though I will break down their game as pass catchers then).
Hailing from the same south Florida area that has sent Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper, and Jerry Jeudy to Alabama, Thaiu Jones-Bell must be a mortal lock to be a successful Crimson Tide receiver.
He’s a bit on the smaller side, standing under 6’0” and less than 190 pounds, but that’s also nearly the exact same size as Ruggs, so that’s clearly not been major criteria for Alabama’s receivers. He reported a 4.5s forty-yard dash, though it isn’t verified, and didn’t post any other testing data, so I can’t come up with a good guess on his SPARQ score, unfortunately.
Jones-Bell was used primarily as a deep threat receiver as a junior. He had the speed to beat most any high school defensive back, and used it— usually to the tune of at least 5 yards of separation on any go routes.
As a senior, he worked on rounding out his game to become a more technical route-runner and showed that he can run nearly any route in the book. He still went deep often, but was used much more on short timing routes like curls, slants, and flags (which will be perfect for Alabama’s RPO heavy offense). When pressed on the line of scrimmage, he has an explosive first step and a natural fluidity to countering back the other way if the DB gets off balance. He’s also used to playing with a QB that scrambles a lot, and knows how to break off his route and come back to his passer when he’s in need.
With the ball in his hands, he’s got the speed to get past defenders and eat up a chunk of yards in a hurry. His jukes are decisive with little wasted footwork, if not as flashy or ankle-breaking as someone like Jeudy.
The major question will be how he holds up in the mid-length game and on contested catches. He was generally so wide open from his route-running that his hands weren’t challenged very often.
Alabama returns DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle at wide receiver, and guys like John Metchie and Slade Bolden have already shown to have gained some of the coaches’ trust as back ups. So he’ll likely be competing with Xavier Williams and Tyrell Shavers (plus the other two freshmen) for a key back-up role. We may see him on occasion this year, but don’t expect too much.
2021, though, will be wide open, and I think he does become WR4 as a sophomore and is a solid-if-not-major contributor for three years.
Baker was one of the three late signees to officially sign with Alabama on the February Signing Day. Though his 40-yard dash was a bit on the slow side, his shuttle, vertical, and powerball are all respectable numbers. The powerball toss score was actually from a year before his final round of tests, so I expect it’s likely a little better than it was, but I used it anyway for my SPARQ calculation.
He actually improved significantly from the summer between his sophomore and junior years to the combine before his senior year. He was actually around the 20th percentile in athleticism, and then one year later had jumped up to the 66th percentile.
Baker plays even bigger than his 6’1” height, as he excels at jump balls and endzone fades. He’s got a natural feel cutting in front of a defender at the last second and jumping in such a way that he prevents them from being able to make a play on the ball. He’s a natural at timing his jumps and is aggressive at coming back to the ball and making powerful catches without double clutches or using his chest.
He’s got good body control on his route-running and with the ball in his hands as well, translating that same smooth balance to being able to swim around defenders on routes and break tackles at weird angles while keeping his feet. That said, he’s nowhere near as quick and decisive as Jones-Bell on his routes, and often wastes a lot of steps on comebacks.
Though he’ll likely improve on that 4.73 forty yard dash in college, he’s never going to have that pure speed that many SEC defensive backs have, so he’ll have to rely even more on crafty route running and contested catches.
He’s also a very willing blocker in the run game, and does a great job of not just getting in the way, but actually engaging and sustaining blocks on defensive backs down the field.
I think it will take a couple of years for Baker to really get used to SEC speed, but he’ll gain trust early on for his run blocking and helpfulness on third downs, near the sidelines, and in the endzone. If his blocking translates to special teams, I’d expect to see him regularly there. As an upperclassman, he’ll be a full time starter and a go-to possession receiver, similar to the career of Kevin Norwood.
The early enrollee out of California is actually originally from Orlando and then played at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore before moving out to Harbor City as a senior. He’s a a very tall receiver at 6’3”, and has bulked up to 195 since enrolling at Alabama.
His 4.6 forty is self-reported, and there are no other posted test results out there for him, so calculating any SPARQ scI ores is impossible again... Sigh...
Though his size might suggest a possession receiver similar to Baker, Holden is actually at his best with the ball in his hands. He’s got better speed than the 4.6 indicates, and can use his huge stride to outdistance defenders down the sidelines. On top of that, he’s got a powerful stiff arm and his really tough to tackle unless the defender can tangle up his feet.
He does show some promise as a contested catch/jump ball guy, but didn’t do it enough to really make any definite call there, other than to say there’s a lot of potential as a deep ball threat due to his height and speed.
He’s a much less refined route-runner than the other two, and is best when the QB either throws him a screen, or he’s allowed to outrun people on longer routes like drags, posts, and fades.
Due to his speed and ability to break tackles, he’s also an effective kick and punt return specialist who has a really good feel for being able to slip between blockers and pick out the open lanes.
I think Holden is the least likely of the three new receivers to see playing time as a freshman, and is almost assuredly a redshirt candidate. Due to his size/speed combination, he’s got a lot of potential, but also has a lot of work to reach that potential. I think that by the time he’s an upperclassman, he’ll have a chance to work into the game as a WR4 or WR5 and make the occasional splash play.
Most high school tight ends don’t come in at already over 250 pounds. And a 4.45 shuttle at that size is nothing short of stellar. At the same time, Caden Clark’s 40ft powerball toss is usually something only seen by linemen and the occasional linebacker. So though his forty and vertical are a bit lackluster, his SPARQ score is really good. And when compared to tight ends (a position group notorious for a lack of athleticism), he’s a 91st percentile athlete.
So while Clark is technically the lowest ranked member of Alabama’s recruiting class, he is still an upper-three star prospect at a position that often falls down the overall rankings, and not a player to be dismissed.
Clark played in a standard 2000s pro-style offense that made good use of play action tosses to the tight end out of tight I-formation sets, so he’s got plenty of experience selling blocks and then slipping out unnoticed somewhere on the field for nice gains. He mostly lines up on the line of scrimmage as an in-line tight end, but also will occasionally split out to wide receiver and run a route.
When it comes to speed, Clark offers little. His routes are mostly straight lines with at most a 45 degree cut, and after the catch is just going to be a race straight ahead until someone takes him down.
However, as I mentioned earlier, he’s got a good feel for splitting zones and finding those open spots in the defense anyway. He’s got great hands and can twist around to catch bad throws behind him— he’s got a number of one-handed catches in that exact situation to his credit— and also has the height to reach up and catch balls that would go over most people’s heads.
He’s an aggressive and powerful blocker in the run game who likes to drop low and then block up and into the defender’s chest on the line of scrimmage. He’s just as aggressive when blocking downfield, but that can sometimes work against him if a more lithe defender counters back around him.
The playing time will go to the upperclassmen in Miller Forristall, Major Tennison, and grad transfer Carl Tucker this year, but none of the younger players like Michael Parker, Cameron Latu, or Jahleel Billingsley took advantage of Forristall’s injury in 2019, so Clark will likely have just as much of a shot at eventually winning playing time as any of them.
It’s generally a pretty easy thing to predict an Alabama tight end’s career. They won’t play much for the first year, get some spot blocking duty in year two, and then, unless they transfer, are part of a 2-3 man rotation as upperclassmen who catch maybe 10-15 passes per year. Clark will be no different.
Finally, there’s the grad transfer out of North Carolina, Carl Tucker. Once a fairly high three star wide receiver, Tucker put on 30 pounds in college to become a tight end. Five years ago, at 6’2” 213, he ran a 4.59 forty yard dash, but he’s now playing at 248 pounds, so I expect him to be a bit slower than that now.
Tucker immediately made an impact as a redshirt freshman on a 50 yard catch and run on a slant pass against Duke, and went on to play in every game that season. He then became a full time starter as a sophomore, but was lost for the season to injury in game 4. His junior year was his best year, when he caught 16 passes for 265 yards and 2 touchdowns, including an 80-yarder against Virginia Tech.
His senior season wound up being hampered by injuries again, and he only caught 5 passes all season.
Tucker became a phenomenal blocker at UNC, whether it was lead blocking as a fullback, helping out on receiver screens, or even pass blocking from the line of scrimmage. He lined up at nearly any position on the field and made the blocks that were needed. UNC’s favorite use of him was to line him up at receiver and then have him blocking cornerbacks downfield on screens, draws, sweeps, and swings.
Though they rarely used him in the passing game, Tucker generally showed a surprising burst of speed when he caught the ball, and made a few really impressive catches over the years.
I think it very likely that Tucker immediately surpasses Tennison on the depth chart and becomes the second TE with Forristall.