Alabama Crimson Tide: Evan Engram

Ranking the SEC tight ends

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
4:30
PM ET
We started the day by ranking all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Next, we looked at the top 10 wide receivers in the SEC. Now it’s time to look at the top 10 tight ends.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillO.J. Howard figures to play a bigger role in Alabama's offense in 2014.
1. O.J. Howard, So., Alabama: He’s big, he’s strong and boy is he athletic. There were times last season when Howard looked unstoppable. Linebackers were too slow to keep up with him and cornerbacks were too small to cover him one on one. But he was underutilized as a freshman, failing to catch a pass in five games. With Lane Kiffin now running the offense and a new quarterback under center, Howard won’t go unnoticed as a sophomore.

2. Hunter Henry, So., Arkansas: Even without any consistency at quarterback, Henry emerged as one of the most promising young tight ends in the country as a true freshman last year, a pass-catcher who wasn't afraid to go over the middle. He finished with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns, and this year coaches are expecting even more.

3. Evan Engram, So., Ole Miss: Injuries clouded an otherwise eye-opening rookie campaign. He started last season on a tear with 20 catches and four touchdowns through seven games and then missed the final five games of the regular season. If he has a clean bill of health, he’s the type of hybrid receiver-tight end who can flourish in Hugh Freeze’s offense and complement Laquon Treadwell on the outside.

4. Jake McGee, Sr., Florida: The Gators' outlook at tight end went from bleak to rosy in one stroke when McGee transferred from Virginia, where he was the Cavs' leading receiver last season. At 6-6, 255, he gives quarterback Jeff Driskel a veteran safety net he can turn to in a pinch. Last season at UVA, McGee got a first down or touchdown on 26 of his 43 receptions.

5. Malcolm Johnson, Sr., Mississippi State: When he arrived in Starkville, Johnson was a three-star wide receiver who weighed only 200 pounds. Now, four years later, he’s 231 pounds and considered one of the better tight ends in the conference. He not only has evolved into a tight end, he ha become more productive every year. He had his best season yet last year with 30 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Rory Anderson, Sr., South Carolina: The only question with Anderson is his health. He tore his triceps during spring practice, but the Gamecocks are optimistic that he will be ready for the season. He's a big-play target at tight end who has averaged 17.8 yards per catch during his career and had five touchdowns as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeJay Rome
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia's Jay Rome, who was the top-ranked tight end in the Class of 2011, has 20 career catches for the Bulldogs.
7. Jay Rome, Jr., Georgia: Everybody is excited about incoming freshman Jeb Blazevich, but don’t sleep on Rome. He only had nine catches last year, but he played behind Arthur Lynch and missed the final four games with an injury. At 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, Rome will provide a big target for quarterback Hutson Mason, and be an asset in the rushing game.

8. Cameron Clear, Sr., Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin’s wide-open up-tempo offense doesn’t have an extensive history of using tight ends but he hasn’t always had the kind of premier player at the position to utilize. Clear, a massive 6-6, 274-pounder who can move well for his size, gives the Aggies a matchup advantage at the position. He wasn’t used often in his first year on campus, but look for his role to expand this fall under new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

9. Jerell Adams, Jr., South Carolina: With three touchdown catches in 22 career games, Adams is one of those players who could explode this season. He's got great size (6-6, 247) and more than enough speed to get open and make plays down the field.

10. C.J. Uzomah, Sr., Auburn: He might not be the most productive tight end in the SEC, but he’s one of the most clutch. Uzomah had the game-winning touchdown grab against Mississippi State, and he caught another touchdown in the Iron Bowl. As quarterback Nick Marshall evolves as a passer, Uzomah could see his stock rise.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 21, 2013
10/21/13
12:00
PM ET
What a wild weekend in the SEC. After a handful of upsets and other compelling developments across the league, there's plenty to chew on. Here's a sampling:

Five things: Alabama-Ole Miss

September, 28, 2013
9/28/13
7:00
AM ET
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Get through this next game and regroup. That's the idea for Alabama after a shaky start to the season against Virginia Tech, Texas A&M and Colorado State. Should the undefeated Crimson Tide clear the final September hurdle and beat Ole Miss, the month of October will set up nicely with unranked Georgia State, Kentucky, Arkansas and Tennessee all in a row.

Here's what we'll be watching when the top-ranked Crimson Tide get back to SEC play against the 21st-ranked Rebels.

Think positive: Nick Saban wants everyone to think happy thoughts. Alabama's coach has seen the frustration of the fan base permeate the locker room, and he doesn't like it. "The big thing we need, everyone needs," he said Wednesday, "is a lot of positive energy and to be excited about the challenges this team has." That is, the challenge of living up to its championship expectations. "They need to be supported and everybody doesn't need to sit around and say, 'Ah, what's wrong with these guys?'" Saban added. With that in mind, pay attention to the Crimson Tide’s body language and the attitude. If expectations really are getting to these players and this program, it will inevitably show on the football field.

Shore up the secondary: Nick Perry wasn't the be-all and end-all to the Alabama secondary, but the senior safety was one of the most veteran contributors and a calming force on the back end of the defense. Perry stands to miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery, robbing Saban of a piece of the defense he could sorely afford to lose. Thankfully for the coach, though, Deion Belue appears to be ready to go after sitting out last week's game, which gives the Tide back its top on-ball defender. Now Alabama must find some complementary parts. John Fulton, who was manhandled by Mike Evans and Texas A&M a few weeks ago, didn't start until the second half against CSU. He's a question mark. So is Cyrus Jones, who continues to show some growing pains after transitioning from offense this offseason. Saban said a freshman would have started had Belue not been able to go. Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson, the two likeliest rookies to play, learned a lot against CSU, but they're nonetheless shaky with such little experience. They likely will be leaned on regardless, as Ole Miss likes to spread out on offense with Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan on the outside, Laquon Treadwell in the slot, and Evan Engram split out at tight end.

Establish the running game: Sixty-six yards isn't going to cut it, not in Alabama's offense, which is still predicated on the ability to run the football. The Crimson Tide mustered just 66 yards rushing against a Colorado State team that came into the game allowing an average of 160 yards on the ground per game. AJ McCarron said earlier this week how this year's team is different, how it might not be a run-first team. Although that appears to be true, Alabama still must have some measure of success running the football. Too much of offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier's scheme is dependent on working off of play-action. If the Tide offense isn't balanced, it simply won't work. Against an Ole Miss team that gives up just 114.3 yards per game on the ground (29th nationally) and 3.09 yards per carry (21st nationally), it should be even tougher sledding for Alabama. T.J. Yeldon & Co. don't necessarily have to run for last season's average of 227.5 yards per game, but getting over the 100-yard plateau would do wonders for the success and consistency of the offense as a whole.

Win third down: Because of that lackluster running game, third down has become increasingly difficult for Alabama. Second-and-long has led to third-and-long, which has led to a lot of punts. UA ranks 98th nationally and next to last in the SEC by converting one of every three third-down attempts. That number shrinks even further when it's third-and-7 or more to go. Although it's hard for any team to convert on third-and-long, Alabama can do itself some favors and pick up positive yards on first down and stay ahead of the sticks.

Tempo, tempo, tempo: It's the biggest thing that can take defensive players out of their rhythm, according to Saban, who said that communication and a sense of urgency are important against teams such as Ole Miss that like to push the tempo on offense. "When they go speed ball or hurry up and run a play really fast in 8 seconds," Saban said, "you barely have time to get lined up." Basically, it gets a defense out of whack by getting players out of position and making it difficult for the right play to get called in and relayed to everyone on the field. And Ole Miss does as good a job as anyone at creating that confusion with Bo Wallace upping the pace at quarterback whenever possible. He and running back Jeff Scott can go read-option and shake up the defense effectively. Alabama got a good dose of tempo against Texas A&M a few weeks ago, which should prepare the defense for what it will see Saturday, but, until the bullets start flying, it's hard to tell what the response will be.

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