EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the eighth installment in a series looking ahead to the start of Alabama football fall practice. Today, we look at the tight ends.
Only a small amount of experience and proven pass-catching ability returns. Last year, Irv Smith Jr. blossomed in the Crimson Tide’s open offense and was, in a way, Tua Tagovailoa’s fifth wide receiver, catching 44 passes for 710 yards and seven touchdowns and becoming a second-round NFL Draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings.
When Smith was off the field, Hale Hentges was the primary blocking tight end on the roster but he has graduated. Kedrick James, probably the top athlete at the position in the spring, was suspended at the end of last season, faced at least four more games of suspension heading into 2019 and finally decided in late July to transfer to SMU.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban didn’t sound like he and his staff had found all the answers in the spring.
“Obviously losing Hale and Irv, we’ve got some experience issues at tight end and also some depth issues,” Saban said.
What Saban has heading into fall are five candidates, just two with some sort of previous experience at the position.
Redshirt junior Miller Forristall, who played in 15 games in 2018 although without catching a pass, is probably the front-runner. He was off to a strong start in 2017 before a knee injury against Colorado State led to a medical redshirt. At 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds, he can play either the H-back or the Y-end, used primarily as a blocker. Major Tennison, a redshirt sophomore, is probably suited as a blocker from the Y position as well.
This group includes one player who was on the squad last season, Michael Parker, and another who played a bit on the other side of the football, Cameron Latu.
The switch of Latu from inside linebacker, not the deepest position on the team, to tight end before spring practice was a bit of a surprise but the move seems to have worked well. He is a redshirt freshman although he did see two games of action at linebacker (and on special teams) in 2018. At 6-5 and 247 pounds, he has tight end-level size and athleticism and Saban said at A-Day he was “encouraged” by Latu’s spring progress.
The other newcomer is signee Jahleel Billingsley. The Chicago-area standout needs to add weight but has been impressive in summer workouts, according to observers.
This is one of the more intriguing positions to watch during August practice. It seems unlikely that anyone will match Smith’s pass-receiving numbers, although the trade-off could be stronger point-of-attack blocking. And it is fair to note that no one predicted Smith’s emergence in 2018 preseason, so surprises do happen.