Alabama’s offense has evolved over the years.
As late as 2013, the Crimson Tide was still running a thirty-one West Coast power offense. In that scheme, the tight end is less a pass-catcher than a blocker. Not coincidentally, 2013 would see the TE position have more balls tossed his way — that happens when you’ve got OJ Howard lining up as a Freshman.
With Lane Kiffin’s arrival in 2014, and the arrival of the spread in Tuscaloosa. the H-Back position evolved into what we today: athletic, terrifying wide receivers stuck in a tight end’s body. So, for any discussion of the offense, keep in mind that prior to 2014, the role required more powerful players at the H-back than we have seen with the last half-dozen years of moderned-up tight end play. And with it, so too did the H-back position evolve into a beefier version of pass-catching fullback (looking at you, Jalston Fowler.)
BTW, if you’re interested, everything old is new again: Alabama OC Steve Sarkisian very much runs a 21st century West Coast offense, where the emphasis is on ball control passing. But, it borrows heavily from the BYU school a la Norm Chow: More Bill Walsh than Jim McElwain. In fact, Sarkisian’s offense — one that takes a ton of deep shots — was handed down to him in a direct line from Norm Chow, who learned it from the legendary Lavell Edwards, who learned it from legendary Sid Gillman and his equally legendary Air Coryell Chargers teams.
H-Back / Tight End: Michael Williams
We have to give the nod the local big man, 6’6” 265-pound Michael Williams. More of an H-Back than a pure pass catcher, the four-star from Pickens County did a little bit of everything well. Back in the era of Alabama’s dinoball offense, Williams frequently anchored a stout Alabama running game, rubbing out linebackers in the second level for the likes of Trent Williams and Mark Ingram.
But with his decorated basketball background, he also had good hands for such a big man. Williams was especially dangerous when he would block and release to the outside. Over his career, Williams hauled in 51 catches for a respectable 503 yards, and scored seven touchdowns. Perhaps he will always be known as being the recipient of one of the worst screw jobs in modern Alabama history, in the first Game of the Century. But Williams also hauled in more than his fair share of clutch catches over the years, including picking up three big first downs and scoring in the 2013 BCS Title game against Notre Dame.
If you’re ever in Reform, drop by and say hi: Coach Williams spent four years in the NFL at tight end and offensive tackle, and he now coaches his alma mater at Pickens County High School.
Honorable Mention: Colin Peek — I know, I know. Many of you probably wanted Holla’ McGee at this spot. More of a tight end than an H-Back, Peek could still put players on their butts. But Peek only had one year of starts at the Capstone (though it was a very productive season: 26 catches for 313 yards and three scores.) Despite Peek making one of the Tide’s more memorable grabs of that 2009 title run, Williams just seemed to be the better overall selection. Make your case for Peek or any others below. I’ll entertain your argument (including for Brad Smelley, who has improbably had the best career of the bunch.)
So, Colin, how about settling for being the headline art and an awesome replay from the 2009 SEC Championship Game — the catch that broke the Gators’ 20-year SEC reign of terror for good?
Fullback / Goal line back: Roy Upchurch
To be a “fullback” in Nick Saban’s idealized offense requires a Swiss Army Knife of a player: The ability to pass block, the ability to lead block, to be a powerful and explosive running back in your own right, to be unafraid of contact, to have the ability to handle half-a-dozen touches a game, and almost as critically, to be effective as a receiver in the passing game.
In the years to come, we would see the completed vision of that fullback/goal-line back mature in All-Saban fullback Jalston Fowler. But, before Fowler, there was the hybrid halfback/fullback monster known as Roy Upchurch.
Alabama has had its share of players that are unafraid to lower the pads. But before Josh Jacobs was forcing business decisions upon defenders, there was Roy Upchurch, whose motto seemed to be “Why step out of bounds when there are two more yards to be had going over this man.”
After his freshman season in 2006, Upchurch would find his role within the Alabama offense doing all of those things — averaging about 60 touches per season. Under Saban, Roy improved his YPC every season between 2007 to 2009. Over a career, he decleated opponents for 5.5 yards per carry. Similarly, his role in the passing game grew each year too, and receptions accounted for 20% of his plays from scrimmage by his senior season. While Upchurch churned-out nine touchdowns on the ground, he only scored once in the passing game.
But, mercy, was it an important play. Without Upchurch’s sole touchdown catch, Alabama’s dynasty perhaps never even gets off the ground. And, most fittingly for this do-it-all player who trafficked in the dirty work, there was a beautiful symmetry to Roy Upchurch scoring the first and last touchdowns of Alabama’s 2009 regular season.
After football, Upchurch went into coaching, and he is now the Assistant Strength Coach with fellow Saban alum Will Muschamp at South Carolina.
Honorable Mention: Ben Howell — Howell’s heroics on the field won’t bring back any iconic memories. For his career, the walk-on fullback had just 23 plays from scrimmage. He rushed for 2.7 YPC and just 63 yards. But the unheralded, unrecruited kid from Gordo paid his dues on the scout team, blocking the likes of Terrence Cody and Courtney Upshaw — even juking out Javier Arenas on one occasion. He has rightly been called Alabama’s Rudy by his teammates, and you’ve rarely heard such glowing praise of a scout team player than the words those players reserved for Howell.
His is one of the best stories we never tell. Take a bow, Ben.