TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The immediate reaction is to think, “That can’t be right.”
Even though Ole Miss has scored 149 points and passed for 716 yards in just two games, junior tight end Evan Engram has made only one reception for five yards and been kept out of the end zone while seemingly everyone else in blue has already scored this season.
Ten teammates—including defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche—have better receiving numbers.
Yet Engram’s one of the players the Alabama defense will be keying on Saturday night (8:15 p.m. CT, ESPN), just like Ole Miss will have to be very aware of where Crimson Tide junior tight end O.J. Howard lines up.
“Oh man, he’s kind of like a wide receiver in tight end’s body, so it’s going to be real tough,” Alabama senior linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “I’ve got to stay low on him and look at his hips like I’m playing basketball 'cause can’t nobody go nowhere without their hips, so it’s going to be a good matchup.
“He’s a great player.”
In both the pro and college levels, prolific receiving tight ends have become the kings of mismatches because they’re so difficult to defend. Too fast for most linebackers to keep up with and too physical for the defensive backs, they’re sort of a pick-your-poison kind of thing.
“He’s very similar to O.J.,” Alabama senior cornerback Cyrus Jones said. “Being able to split out, he has speed at the tight end position so when they go four wide, they don't have to sub out. They can just split him out and get the same effect. Anytime you have that versatility at tight end, it makes your offense more effective."
Although Engram only had three catches against Alabama during last year’s meeting, one was the turning point in the Rebels’ 23-17 upset home victory against the No. 1 Crimson Tide.
His 50-yard reception was right after Alabama failed to score on a 14-play possession that lasted six minutes and 25 seconds in the third quarter. It changed the momentum, got the crowd back in the game and set up Bo Wallace’s first touchdown pass.
“Anything across the middle is big in terms of our confidence,” Engram said. “A lot of guys shy away from it. That’s kind of my specialty, getting the ball over the middle and getting first downs.”
Meanwhile, Howard had the key reception to get Alabama’s offense going against Middle Tennessee last week. His catch, run and ability to break a tackle resulted in a 42-yard gain and set up the Crimson Tide’s second touchdown en route to a 37-10 victory.
“O.J. has done a really good job,” Nick Saban said about Howard, who has seven receptions for 105 yards this season. “He had a great camp.”
Although both are adept at turning a reception into a big gain, blocking was an area that each aimed to improve in this season. For the 6'6", 242-pound Howard, it was a prerequisite for getting on the field as the starting H-back tight end due to the Crimson Tide’s power-running attack.
Engram doesn’t have the same size advantage. He arrived on campus in 2013 weighing around 210 pounds, and even his own teammates thought he was too small to play the position.
“Once he put on some weight, I was, ‘Ok, I can see why they recruited him,’” defensive back Mike Hilton said.
Engram played most of last season at about 227 pounds, but he got his weight up to 235 during training camp. He’s still listed as 6’3”, 227 pounds, but so far he has played as more of a true tight end with blocking and pass protection as his primary responsibilities.
As for Engram’s pass-catching skills, he’s made 60 career receptions for 935 yards and five touchdowns, but how he’s gone about things is what’s impressed his teammates the most.
They describe him as detail-oriented, a hard worker and one of the guys who always says, “Let’s go” when everyone’s tired.
“I think what makes him stand out is his route running,” senior linebacker C.J. Johnson said. “I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he runs routes. He’s really hard to touch, especially if you’re in a trail position.”
Add quarterback Chad Kelly into the mix, a consistent deep-ball threat who can also run, and it’s probably just a matter of time before Hugh Freeze and his coaching staff unleash Engram, giving the offense another important weapon who has to be accounted for.
Although Alabama has been better in the backfield and Ole Miss appears to have some depth at wide receiver, that’s really the goal of both offenses—to be as diverse as possible.
It’s also why either tight end could have said the following (although in this case it was Howard): “I think that’s the most important thing about our offense. We have so many weapons on the offensive side of the ball and you never know who to key in on. We had a lot of guys have catches and that’s going to make it hard for us to be stoppable this season.”
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.