Alabama Football: Spring Practice Preview for the Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
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As Alabama prepares to begin spring practice in less than a month’s time, the third edition of my series breaking down the positional units on the Tide’s roster focuses on the wide receivers and tight ends.
Last season saw Nick Saban turn his focus onto upgrading his pass-catching unit, and the overhaul was successful considering the emergence of star freshman receiver Amari Cooper and the phenomenal season turned in by quarterback A.J. McCarron.
With McCarron and a dynamic cast of running backs in tow, the receiving unit—which loses only tight end Michael Williams and H-back Kelly Johnson to graduation—could be the best collection of pass-catchers Saban has fielded since arriving in Tuscaloosa.
Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones, the two receivers who finished last season in the starting rotation alongside Cooper, are both returning.
Veterans Kenny Bell and DeAndrew White are also set to return after injuries cost them significant time a year ago. Also, young talents like Cyrus Jones and Chris Black will get a chance to throw their names in the mix to get in the rotation this fall.
While the tight end position will be up for grabs, stud recruit and early enrollee O.J. Howard will undoubtedly be one of the most anticipated newcomers taking part in spring drills.
Howard will join tight ends Brian Vogler, Harrison Jones, Kurt Freitag and Malcolm Faciane for the right to fill the vacancies left by Williams and Johnson.
What can Tide fans expect from both pass-catching groups, and which spots will find the most intense competition during spring ball?
Find out the answers to those questions and more in this primer breaking down the Tide’s receiver and tight end units.
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Receiver X – Amari Cooper, Sophomore
Receiver Z – Kenny Bell, Senior
Receiver H – Christion Jones, Junior
Tight End – Brian Vogler, Junior
H-Back – Harrison Jones, Junior
The receiver units have no shortage of players that can contribute considering that the team’s top four leaders in receptions a year ago all return.
Cooper, who burst onto the scene over the last half of the 2012 season, is poised to become one of the greatest receivers in school history after piling up 58 catches for 999 yards and 11 scores in his debut season on the college level.
Bell and Norwood—the unit’s only two seniors—both have extensive experience and each player has flashed periods of excellence in their three years on campus.
Meanwhile, Christion Jones will likely see heavy competition from stud 2012 recruits Cyrus Jones (no relation) and Chris Black to maintain his role as the team’s starter in the slot.
The tight end and H-back positions are truly wide open considering that Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones, who combined to record four receptions in their careers, are the only players that have contributed in a receiving capacity.
A pair of wild cards could emerge for both spots.
Howard is a safe bet to get in the mix, but Jalston Fowler, who is recovering from a torn ACL suffered early last season, could be a candidate to switch to H-back upon his return.
3. Biggest Spring Battles
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Receiver H (Christion Jones vs. Chris Black vs. Cyrus Jones)
Tight End (Brian Vogler vs. Malcolm Faciane vs. O.J. Howard)
Aside from Cooper, expect the other starting receiver positions to field fierce competition until the Tide’s season-opener against Virginia Tech.
While Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood will certainly fight tooth and nail for the Z spot, both enter their final college season as known quantities for the coaching staff and McCarron.
Christion Jones was certainly productive as a starter last season, but both Cyrus Jones and Chris Black were heralded prepsters that have the talent and ability to make things interesting at the slot position.
Considering the relative inexperience amongst the Tide’s returning players at tight end, Howard has an opportunity to make an impact similar to what Cooper was able to accomplish last spring.
However, both Brian Vogler and Malcolm Faciane have at least two years of seasoning at the college level. That familiarity with both the offense and the speed of the game should benefit them in making a move for a starting spot.
2. Impact Newcomer
B/R Full Ride video spotlight on TE O.J. Howard.
Impact Newcomer – O.J. Howard
Alabama has had productive players at the tight end position, but Howard, who was the nation’s top tight end recruit per 247 Sports, has the skills to add a pass-catching dimension to a spot that has largely been occupied by players that excel as blockers.
The fact that the 6’5”, 221-pound Howard will participate in spring drills is huge for his chances at seeing the field in the fall.
Considering the strength of the receiving unit compared to years past and the Tide’s dynamic group of rushers, adding an element of a tight end threat that can work the middle of the field is a metric that could open up the offense and potentially take it to another level.
1. Grades on Strength of Receiver, Tight End Positions Entering Spring
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Grade of Receiver Unit Entering Spring – A
Grade of Tight End Unit Entering Spring – B
Alabama returns every receiver that made a significant contribution from last season’s squad, and the unit possesses one of the nation’s most electrifying playmakers in Cooper. Those two factors illustrate just how far that unit has progressed from this time a year ago.
The return of Bell from injury and the continued development of Cyrus Jones and Chris Black should give the Tide enough depth and experience to be one of the strongest units on the team.
The tight ends are largely an unknown due to the lack of production from players that have been on the roster for at least two seasons.
However, the addition of Howard is a potential game-changer that could turn into one of the stories of the spring.
Regardless, there are enough talented prospects on campus to find a suitable replacement for both Williams and Johnson.
With a nice blend of veterans and an infusion of young talent ready to make a contribution, Alabama’s group of pass-catchers has all the necessary ingredients to be one of the top units in the country.