TUSCALOOSA, Ala., — Alabama tight ends lined up Monday in somewhat of a firing line during practice, each one catching bullets whipped in by the arm of newly hired tight ends coach Joe Pannunzio.
The drill involved tight ends shedding a block before catching a pass over the middle from Pannunzio, who peppered in throws from 10 yards away. While it’s a bit premature to come to any conclusions based on a 15-minute viewing period in practice, the exercise could very well foreshadow how the Crimson Tide’s offensive attack will look this season.
It’s as good a guess as anything else when trying to project what Alabama’s offense will look like under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. After all, Daboll comes to the Tide after serving the past three seasons as the New England Patriots’ tight ends coach. Then again, predicting the Tide’s offensive approach this spring hasn’t always fared well for reporters.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who previously went on a rant earlier this spring over a presumption that the Tide will run a more “ball control” offense this season, was asked this week if the hiring of Daboll would prompt the offense to run out of more two-tight end sets. The question, at least on paper, seems fitting as the Patriots often run out of the formation.
“You know, I think that’s a situational thing,” Saban replied. “Look, we made a lot more plays around here when we spread people out then we do when we play wad ball, which is what I used to play when I was in high school.
“Everybody is in a tight formation, so all 11 guys are within a really short area. You really have to dominate everybody that you block to make plays work. Some people do it more effectively than others. We’ve been able to do it to some degree around here when we needed to. I think that’s sort of a situational thing and we’ll probably still use it as that, whether it’s short yardage, four-minute that type of thing.”
No matter how many tight ends Alabama uses, it will need to fill the gaping hole left behind by O.J. Howard, who is projected to be a top 10 pick in the NFL Draft after tallying 595 yards and three touchdowns on 45 receptions last season.
Most have appointed sophomore Miller Forristall as the natural replacement to Howard’s production, especially in the passing game where he tallied five catches for 73 yards in during his freshman season.
“Miller Forristall played a lot last year for us, he's gotten bigger and stronger so he'll probably play a little more H,” Saban said. “He's a little more O.J.-like in terms of a very good receiver. O.J. became a very good blocker, but at the early stages of his career, that was one of the things he needed to improve on. I think Miller is making progress in that area.”
The Tide’s best blocking tight end right now appears to be junior Hale Hentges, who made three starts last season, pulling in three receptions for 10 yards. Alabama also returns redshirt freshman Irv Smith and has brought in four-star early enrollee Major Tennison.
“There’s a good bit of depth,” Hentges said. “We have guys like Irv Smith, who is extremely good. A lot of people haven’t heard much about him yet just because he didn’t play a whole lot last year, but this guy has a ton of talent. I’m sure you guys are going to be seeing him coming up in the coming season.
“Then we have another guy, Major Tennyson, who has done a really good job for us. He’s just a freshman, he’s trying to figure it out, but he’s getting better and better every day. Often times, as freshmen do, they struggle at first then they get better and better. I’m seeing that happen right before my very eyes. We have a ton of other really great guys who are working into this position.”
Another new addition is former running back Ronnie Clark, who has been moved to tight end where he is being groomed for the H-back role.
“It’s definitely hard anytime you have to switch positions, but Ronnie has taken it in stride,” Hentges said. “He’s a great guy. He works extremely hard – extremely athletic, too. I think you’re going to see him continue to grow and develop in this tight end position.”
Despite sharing a combined nine career catches between its tight end unit, Alabama appears to have a bit of depth at the position. That should give Daboll plenty of options if he desires to carry over the Patriots tight-end based attack to Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Whether or not that’s the case should become more evident as the spring progresses. Alabama will hold its first scrimmage on Saturday. How the Tide utilizes its tight ends there could serve as another clue.
“You know, that's something that we're still trying to figure out as we kind of progress into spring ball, and obviously, all of our offense isn't totally put in yet,” Hentges said. “You know, I’ve seen a lot of great stuff as far as tight end goes. I don't think it’s any secret that Daboll loves tight ends coming from New England. So I think from that aspect we're going to have a lot of great opportunities in the tight end room. I think you can see that on the horizon, some expanded tight end roles.”
“We have a lot of depth at tight end, especially when it comes to walk-ons, too. We have a ton of great guys who just contribute and do the best they can. I think you’re going to see us just continue to grow and develop at the tight end position. I don’t think we’ll drop off at all.”