Troy McAllister watched Jahleel Billingsley’s first reception as a University of Alabama tight end, a 19-yard gain punctuated by flattening a Mississippi State cornerback with a vicious shoulder.

“We’re accustomed to seeing that around here,” McAllister told The Tuscaloosa News. McAllister is the head coach at Phillips Academy in Chicago, where Billingsley played high school football. He knows better than all how versatile Billingsley is, and in the latter half of this season, Alabama is putting it to use.

The short-term future at tight end was an intriguing question after Miller Forristall’s throat injury forced him out of UA’s final four regular season games. UA had previously rotated Major Tennison in behind Forristall, then used offensive linemen Chris Owens and Kendall Randolph as special-package tight ends. Instead of turning to those packages more often, UA has given Billingsley more snaps, and he’s done well with them.

“He has a lot of ability, and we’ve been trying to develop him all year long,” UA coach Nick Saban said. “The big issue for young players is you got to know what to do, you have to know how to do it, you have to know why it’s important to do it that way. He doesn’t have a lot of experience, so we want to keep working with him and keep developing him and hopefully he’ll be able to make a positive contribution at a position right now where we’re a little thin on personnel.”

McAllister added, “Jahleel’s athletically gifted, obviously, so he has the ability to be a difference maker when he turns it on. At the high school level we saw it all the time and I think Alabama is starting to realize there’s something special about him.”

The early returns on Billingsley have been encouraging, particularly in being useful as both a pass catcher and a blocker. It’s not always been the case with Alabama tight ends of late: Irv Smith Jr. was much better as a receiver than a blocker, and Hale Hentges was the opposite.

Billingsley was mostly used as a receiver at Phillips Academy, particularly as a senior when his mismatch potential as a receiver was too much to ignore. But the way Phillips runs its program got Billingsley an early education in some of the finer points of blocking.

“We don’t have a tight ends coach, so the tight ends split time with the offensive line and wide receivers,” McAllister said. “In terms of technique, you develop it that way because you’re working with the offensive line coach.

“He can definitely do it. With his size, his strength and his athleticism, that kind of combination, there’s very little that he can’t do.”

The receiving part of the job came naturally. The mismatch created by a 6-foot-4, 228-pound athlete with speed made things easy for McAllister in Billingsley’s senior season — “Split him out wide, get him against a little corner and throw it to him.” — but Billingsley did more than that.

“We’re a heavy RPO team here, so we always try to find creative ways to get him the ball,” McAllister said.

UA has done the same.

Billingsley’s catch came on a complex play that may have been a RPO: Billingsley was on the left side of the formation when Tua Tagovailoa faked a handoff to the right. That action combined with left guard Evan Neal pulling to the right side gave the Mississippi State defense reason to slide in that direction; on the other side of the formation, Billingsley took a couple of blocking steps in the direction of the run before turning and jetting for the other sideline. Two lead blockers were already set up as lead blockers for what was effectively a screen.

Billingsley used the lead blockers well, getting to the sideline before finishing with authority.

“That’s things that he does in practice,” wide receiver DeVonta Smith said. “He’s physical in practice, so we expect him to do that in the game and that’s what he did.”

The highlight was more than just showcasing Billingsley’s receiving skill: it was further validation for a state that has not had a player sign with Alabama since 1997.

“Obviously for our program here at Phillips in Chicago, having a young man graduate and go out to Alabama is huge,” McAllister said. “And then for Illinois, it’s been a while. They signed a great one, Alabama did.”

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson