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What role will tight ends play in Alabama football offense in 2020 season?

Brett Hudson
The Tuscaloosa News
Sep 21, 2019; Chapel Hill, NC, USA;  North Carolina Tar Heels tight end Carl Tucker (86) makes a second half touchdown catch against the Appalachian State Mountaineers at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

This story was originally published Aug. 15, 2020.

In 2016 and 2018, the University of Alabama had tight ends turn in 40-catch seasons: O.J. Howard had 45 receptions in 2016 and Irv Smith Jr. had 44 in 2018, both among the top three in the SEC. 

In contrast, last year, four UA tight ends combined for a mere 21 receptions.

Tight end usage has wildly varied in UA’s history based on personnel. Over the last six years, UA has had as many seasons with a 35-plus catch tight end as it has where its top tight end caught fewer than 20 passes. With a deep tight end room that has yet to produce a prolific performer, UA could feasibly go both directions.

UA showed motivation to get more out of its tight end position by turning to the transfer portal to bolster it. Carl Tucker, a grad transfer from North Carolina, comes to UA for 2020 after being UNC’s third-leading receiver in 2018.

Alabama had no shortage at the position, with eight on the roster, five of them on scholarship and two of them with significant playing time last season. UA adding Tucker suggests he brings something UA didn’t already have, coming off a season in which its tight ends combined for 21 catches.

Granted, the lack of usage of tight ends as pass catches was not entirely indicative of the players at the position. UA did have four elite wide receivers in 2020, one of whom (Jaylen Waddle, 33 catches) barely had more catches than the running back (Najee Harris, 27) as UA maintained balance in its offense. Two of those wide receivers were first round draft picks, giving tight ends more room for receptions in the offense.

A full season from Miller Forristall could also be the difference. Forristall was UA’s most used tight end before his throat injury forced him out of the final four games of the season. As soon as Forristall was available, UA turned to him: in the Citrus Bowl, he caught three passes for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Major Tennison has never been a significant part of UA’s passing game (five receptions in two seasons) but freshman Jahleel Billingsley showed promise as a pass catcher in limited snaps played in Forristall’s absence.

Alabama’s tight ends in 2019 were points of leverage in the run game, to the extreme that it converted offensive linemen into tight ends for specialty packages. Now UA has the option to incorporate more pass catching into the group’s responsibilities, if it so chooses.

Reach Brett Hudson at 205-722-0196 or bhudson@tuscaloosanews.com or via Twitter, @Brett_Hudson