Editor’s note: Alabama’s 13th set of spring practices under head coach Nick Saban began Friday, but will take a nine-day hiatus while the university celebrates its annual Spring Break. In the meantime, the Montgomery Advertiser will examine the Crimson Tide roster as it stands now and project ahead what each position could look like entering next season. Next up, receivers and tight ends.
TUSCALOOSA — Perhaps the biggest recipients of the rise of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa last season were Alabama’s array of pass catchers, including its tight ends.
Key among them was junior tight end Irv Smith Jr., who finished fourth on team with 44 receptions for 710 receiving yards and seven touchdowns, the latter mark representing a single-season program record for tight ends.
In fact, Smith was one of five Tide players with at least 40 receptions for more than 690 yards at last six touchdowns last season, with its sophomore triple-threat at receiver – Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith – combining for 2,749 yards and 31 touchdowns on 156 receptions in their first seasons as starters.
Jeudy, a consensus first-team All-American, led Alabama last season with 68 catches for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to becoming the program’s first Biletnikoff Award winner since Amari Cooper in 2014. Both Jeudy’s touchdown and yard totals ranked second-most in a single season since Cooper racked up 1,727 yards and 16 scores four years prior.
Helping matters was the rapid development of dynamic freshman Jaylen Waddle, who gave the Tide a Big Four at receiver after finishing second on the team with 848 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 45 receptions last season.
But while receiver is by far Alabama’s most well-stocked position, tight end is arguably its most bare after Smith Jr. opted to leave school early for the NFL and steady senior Hale Hentges exhausted his eligibility.
Because of those depth concerns, Tide coaches are trying athletic redshirt freshman linebacker Cameron Latu out at tight end, where only junior Miller Forristall has any starts (two) under his belt.
Here’s a look at what that could look like when spring practice returns Monday:
Departures: TE Hale Hentges (graduated), TE Irv Smith (NFL early entrant), WR Xavian Marks (graduated), WR Derek Kief (graduated)
Returners: WR Slade Bolden (5-11, 191, R-Fr.), WR Jerry Jeudy (6-1, 192, Jr.), WR Henry Ruggs III (6-0, 190, Jr.), WR Tyrell Shavers (6-6, 205, R-Soph.), WR DeVonta Smith (6-1, 175, Jr.), WR Chadarius Townsend (6-0, 194, R-Soph.), WR Jaylen Waddle (5-10, 182, Soph.), WR Xavier Williams (6-1, 195, R-Fr.), WR Chris Herring (6-4, 178, Sr.), WR Jalen Jackson (6-3, 186, R-Sr.), WR Mac Hereford (6-2, 215, Sr.), WR John Parker (6-0, 190, Sr.), WR Chris Golden (6-5, 207, Jr.), TE Kedrick James (6-5, 260, Jr.), TE Miller Forristall (6-5, 234, R-Jr.), TE Major Tennison (6-5, 244, R-Soph.), TE Giles Amos (6-4, 245, Sr.), TE Michael Parker (6-6, 216, R-Fr.), TE Daniel Powell (5-11, 213, Sr.)
Newcomers: WR John Metchie (6-0, 195, Fr.), TE Cameron Latu (6-5, 247, R-Fr.)
Summer arrivals: TE Jahleel Billingsley (6-4, 216, Fr.)
Surprise candidates: Slade Bolden, Major Tennison
Projected spring depth chart
WR (Z) — Henry Ruggs III, Tyrell Shavers/John Metchie
WR (X) — Devonta Smith/Jerry Jeudy, Xavier Williams
WR (H) — Jerry Jeudy/Jaylen Waddle, Slade Bolden/Chadarius Townsend
TE — Miller Forristall/Major Tennison, Kedrick James/Cameron Latu
As mentioned above, Alabama has arguably the nation’s top receiving corps with four returning starters who combined for more than 3,600 yards and nearly 40 receiving touchdowns last season.
That along with returning junior starter Tua Tagovailoa at back at quarterback and the Crimson Tide features one of the country’s most explosive offenses, especially from a passing perspective.
That said, while Tagovailoa and new Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will have plenty of weapons at their disposal next season, they’ll certainly appreciate even more if someone at the tight end position can develop into the type of playmaker Irv Smith Jr. was last season.
That playmaker could be junior Kedrick James, though he won’t be available until after Week 4 while serving the remaining four games of a suspension levied ahead of last season’s College Football Playoff.
In the meantime, Tide coaches are hoping redshirt freshman linebacker Cameron Latu can make an easy transition to the position throughout spring and into the preseason. Whenever they ultimately see the field, both James and Latu will pair with veteran tight ends Miller Forristall and Major Tennison, who are more known for their blocking then receiving skills during their first couple of seasons in Tuscaloosa.
If it can settle its question mark at tight end sooner rather than later, Alabama will undoubtedly feature one of the nation’s most dynamic offenses once again in 2019.