Alabama Crimson Tide: O.J. Howard
That's the message Nick Saban would like to deliver to his top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide as it travels to face a dangerous Bulldogs team on the road in Starkville on Saturday night.
"It's a difficult preparation because they do a great job of coaching their players. I think the focus of our guys needs to be on what we need to do to improve, what we need to do to prepare well so that we can continue to try to play our best.
"That's going to be the real key for us."
Mississippi State players to watch
QB Dak Prescott: He's Mississippi State's leading passer and he's also Mississippi State's leading rusher. So if Prescott can't go against Alabama, look for the Bulldogs offense to suffer. Tyler Russell is obviously a very capable quarterback, but he's a pocket passer through and through. The added dimension Prescott brings with his feet gives Mississippi State's its best chance against the Tide.
WR Jameon Lewis: It's interesting -- and telling -- that Lewis is the only non-quarterback in the country with three touchdown passes. That's not written to imply that he'll take snaps under center on Saturday, but it's important to note Lewis' versatility. He's a guy who has to be accounted for when he has his hands on the football.
DE Preston Smith: The 6-foot-6, 255-pound junior has been on a tear of late, racking up 2.5 tackles for loss in the last three games. He leads Mississippi State with 6.5 tackles for loss and is tied for the most sacks with 2.5.
Alabama players to watch
CB Cyrus Jones: Bradley Sylve still isn't 100 percent, according to Saban, so look for Jones to get his second straight start at cornerback opposite Deion Belue. Jones struggled early against LSU and settled down in the second half last weekend. How he matures over the next few weeks will be key to Alabama's success defending the pass.
S Landon Collins: What more can Collins do? The answer is not very much. Since taking over for Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety against Arkansas, Collins has 15 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, three pass breakups and an interception he returned for a touchdown. You don't get a more all-around effort than that.
TE O.J. Howard: Watching Howard run 52 yards for a touchdown, the point was hammered home: Alabama's freshman tight end has star potential. "O.J. is very athletic," Saban explained, "he's got really good speed." And over the season, he's rounded out his game, improving blocking to the point where right tackle Austin Shepherd said, "He's come a long way. … You can just tell that guy likes to work and he's improved a ton."
10: AJ McCarron threw all three of his touchdowns against LSU while facing five-or-more pass rushers, improving his SEC-best total of passing touchdowns against the blitz to 13.
80: Alabama's defense just keeps humming along. Since the start of the 2009 season, the Crimson Tide has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country (80). The next fewest is LSU with 120.
0.5: OK, so Alabama's streak of 17 quarters without allowing a sack ended against LSU, but as McCarron explained it, it wasn't the line's fault. McCarron ran a naked bootleg and his receiver wasn't there, leaving him no option but to take the loss. "So you can put half of it on me and half of it on the tight end" McCarron said. Still, one sack in 21 quarters of play isn't bad.
Nobody's safe: Five SEC teams in the Top 25 lost Saturday, and only one (Florida) was an underdog coming in. Georgia and South Carolina still were considered among the favorites to win the East, but both teams tripped up on the road to unranked opponents. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown in the final minutes to knock off the Bulldogs, and Tennessee kicked a field goal as time expired to spoil Steve Spurrier's latest trip to Knoxville. No. 7 Texas A&M was a heavy favorite at home against Auburn, but the Aggies' defense let them down again. Auburn rushed for 379 yards and scored late to pull off a 45-41 upset. In the nightcap, a short-handed Ole Miss team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off No. 6 LSU at home.
Auburn is for real: You can make excuses, particularly this one: If Johnny Manziel hadn't hurt his shoulder late in the game, Texas A&M would've won. But the fact of the matter is Auburn went to Kyle Field, put up 45 points, gained 615 yards and beat a top-10 team. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked very impressive after missing last week's game. He threw for 236 yards, rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. Even the defense, much maligned throughout the game, made the stop when it mattered -- with Manziel in the game. It comes back to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. He has changed the culture around the Auburn program, and the Tigers are now 6-1 and the biggest threat to Alabama in the West.
Signature win for Butch: Tennessee came oh so close to pulling the upset against Georgia two weeks ago. It would've been the win to take the Volunteers to the next level, and show recruits that what coach Butch Jones is doing is real. But they came up short. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Tennessee bounced back after a week off and beat a Top 25 team at home. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win. And how about that catch from Marquez North late in the game to put the Vols in range for the game-winning field goal? That was a grown-man catch. Tennessee isn't likely to go into Tuscaloosa and upset the No. 1 team in the nation, but it's obvious that Jones is turning around the program. The Vols took another step with Saturday's win over South Carolina.
Freshman impact: North's catch was spectacular, but he wasn't the only true freshman who had a big game on Saturday. Georgia's Shaq Wiggins returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor scored the Gators' only offensive touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter. And for Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard caught his first touchdown pass from 17 yards out, and running back Derrick Henry showed why he was such a heralded recruit with an 80-yard touchdown run late in the game. It just goes to show how important recruiting has become in the SEC, and it doesn't matter if it's the worst team in the conference or the best team -- freshmen will still play a role.
The groans could be heard all the way from Alabama's campus in Tuscaloosa. Howard, however talented he might be, was showing the telltale signs of youth in an environment that dictated nothing less than perfection.
"It’s a crazy environment down there," Alabama's veteran tight end said. "I told him, ‘Hey, man, in my first start against Michigan, I got a false start, too, so don’t worry about it.' "
Howard responded. He went back out and caught three passes for 68 yards, helping top-ranked Alabama remain undefeated in an offensive shootout against Texas A&M.
"He grew up a bunch in the Texas A&M game -- and he had to," Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said. "Third down and 12 or 15 or whatever it was and we completed the pass to him late in the game, kind of sealed the deal. He’s done an excellent job for us. Just got to keep progressing, can’t take any steps back.
"He does an excellent job of doing what we ask him to do. Hopefully, we can keep getting him more touches."
McCarron seemed happy to have a tight end who could create mismatches with his height, speed and athleticism. And he should be. He has never had anyone quite like Howard to whom to throw the ball.
Nick Saban has never utilized a tight end with Howard's skill set since taking over at Alabama in 2007. While the rest of the country has moved toward pass-catching tight ends who could be split out wide, Saban kept his tight ends on the line of scrimmage, hand on the ground, pounding away at defensive linemen and linebackers. Big plays have been few and far between. Their job was to block for Heisman hopeful tailbacks and field a handful of passes in the red zone each year.
The numbers bear out that fact. No tight end has ever caught more than 35 balls or broken the 400-yard receiving mark at Alabama under Saban. Meanwhile, college football has seen 83 instances of a tight ends finishing the season with more than 35 receptions and 400 yards. All-American Tyler Eifert had 113 catches and 1,485 yards over his final two seasons at Notre Dame.
Alabama's lackluster numbers were the biggest reason why Howard entered his rookie season viewed as something of a savior at the position. Not since Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome in the 1970s had UA featured a tight end who could move like Howard, whose long legs bound effortlessly like a deer when he runs upfield. He's big yet graceful, jumping and pivoting like a power forward in shoulder pads.
"O.J. Howard is a different kind of player, young player, very athletic, pretty good pass receiver," Saban said. "[He] has to get a little bigger and stronger, maybe work on his blocking a little bit, but he is tough and he will try and get after you. His athleticism is a real asset to the passing game. He gives us another threat out there. We’re really pleased with his development."
The tight end position as a whole has grown leaps and bounds this season. Howard's 13 catches for 148 yards has something to do with that. He is, after all, tied for fourth nationally in yards per reception among tight ends. But Vogler and utility back Jalston Fowler have picked up the pace as well.
All told, Alabama's tight ends are on pace to finish the season -- should it go 13 games -- with 57 catches and 642 yards. That number would surpass the previous high in production when Brad Smelley and Co. ended the 2011 season with 52 receptions and 558 yards. And that's if things stay on course. As Howard keeps developing and growing more comfortable in the offense, he stands to do even more in the passing game.
Howard still shows some signs of youth, and the growth of the tight end position as a whole is still in its embryonic stages. After a rough start to the year, things are coming along. After dealing with early season frustrations, there's reason to believe Howard and his fellow tight ends are ready to take the next step.
He’s not one to brag or really go that much in depth about his recruiting, but the fact he has Alabama, Notre Dame and Ohio State already scheduled shows just how high the interest is in those schools.
While there are two more officials to set up, the Crimson Tide, Fighting Irish and Buckeyes are ready to roll out the red carpet for the ESPN 300 senior -- he’s ranked 68th overall and is the No. 1 tight end at the H-position.
Here is a look at all three schools and why each makes sense for the 6-foot-3, 243-pound Luatua:
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You'll recall AJ McCarron being ticked off by all of the talk of his line performing poorly Week 1 against Virginia Tech. It was a sore spot for the senior quarterback, and understandably so. These were the guys charged with protecting him that were being thrown under the bus. So McCarron stepped up, told everyone that would listen that the offensive line wasn't as bad as it was being made out to be and that it would play better against Texas A&M when the time came.
"They did a great job of communicating," McCarron told reporters on Monday. "That's what we needed. Kept me clean most of the game, I was proud of those big guys. Did a really good job. I felt like communication was going to be the biggest thing for us in this last game, especially with that crowd they have there, so I felt like everybody did a great job of communicating and helped our offense a ton."
Saban, for his part, applauded the line's improvement at the point of attack. Their ability to control the tempo opened up the offense as a whole. The Tide, two weeks after going three-and-out seven times and failing to score on a drive that began inside its own territory, had seven drives of 60 or more yards and went three-and-out just three times. Alabama racked up 49 points and 568 total yards -- 334 yards passing, 234 yards on the ground.
"Obviously [we] played a lot better offensively, communicated better, controlled the line of scrimmage, didn't have a lot of negative plays," Saban said. "Had a lot of balance running the ball as well as being able to throw it effectively and not have a lot of pressure in the pocket and really control the time of possession in the game, which is really, really important. Especially when you're playing against an offense like they have."
Kouandjio said the communication that failed them in the season opener was 10 times better, and he noted that their ability to run the ball helped wear down Texas A&M's defense. Mostly, though, he was pleased to hear how much the tone had changed after the game.
"Yeah, it felt really good," he said of quieting the critics. "People misunderstood the first game. We came out there and did what we were supposed to do."
Alabama's line didn't miss a beat, even when starting right guard Anthony Steen had to leave the field with an injury. Kellen Williams came in and the offense went right down the field yet again.
"K-dub deserves a lot of credit," McCarron said. "I mean for a guy to sit there the whole game and have to stay into the game mentally and then be called on for the last drive to help lead us down the field, unbelievable job. It really says a lot about him as a player, as a teammate, but as a person too. Excellent job by him, and he really did make some good blocks on that drive to help him put points on the board."
Said Saban: "We think Kellen is kind of a jack-of-all trades for us. He can play left tackle, left guard, right guard, can probably play right tackle. He was the most experienced guy to put in the game at that time. Did a really good job and we didn't really miss a beat with him in there. He's a fifth-year senior and he's played a lot, has a lot of experience. We really look at him as a starter on our team."
Brian Vogler, Alabama's starting tight end, said Williams gives "a lot of peoples' morale in the huddle" with his energy.
But Vogler had to credit himself and his fellow tight ends for some of the Alabama's success both in the running and the passing game. Brandon Greene essentially served as a third offensive tackle and true freshman O.J. Howard made plenty of plays in the passing game.
For the first time in a while, the tight end position felt relevant for the Crimson Tide.
"Any way we can contribute is great," Vogler said. "Sometimes you get disappointed when they call Big Play, but they call it to the other tight end. But I know O.J.’s abilities. There were a couple of times where if they called my number anc it was a deep ball, I just wanted to be like, ‘Put O.J. in now,’ because I know like I’m kind of tired right now and I want to see what he can do out there. Having him gain more confidence really helps. A game like this can really help with his confidence and hopefully he can improve in some areas."
Vogler said Greene, who began his career on the offensive line, has made "unbelievable progress" at tight end. He might be known as a blocker in short-yardage and goal-line situations now, but Vogler thinks it's only a matter of time before he expands his role on offense.
"He’s working on his route technique every single day," Vogler said. "As an offensive lineman, he knows how to block. He’s making improvement every day. We’re trying to throw him in there on more routes in practice so he’ll feel a little more comfortable out there. For a guy his size [6-5, 307], he moves well. I can’t wait for the opportunity for him running a route out there and you guys being shocked at how he can move."
"If I were you, I wouldn't make to much of the depth chart we released," Alabama's head coach warned during Monday's news conference. "It's a chore for me to do that, it really is. I know it's important to you so we wanted to provide you with something. But don't ask me questions cause I'm telling you now, it's for you. The depth chart isn't for our team, it's for you so you can have it, write about it and talk about it. You made me do a depth chart when I didn't want to do one. So that's how I'm going to answer you."
Kenyan Drake, the team's third-leading rusher and a top candidate to back up starting tailback T.J. Yeldon this fall, wasn't even on it. Instead, Jalston Fowler was listed as the No. 2 back with Dee Hart, Derrick Henry and Altee Tenpenny listed as co-No. 3 at the position. Why Drake was missing is anyone's guess. Saban hasn't said a word on the subject and because the depth chart was handed out after his regular Monday press conference, no one could ask.
"T.J. certainly is a guy that has played a lot and has experience," Saban said. "I think Jalston Fowler is another guy who's played a lot and had experience. He's going to play a dual role in this game. He'll play some running back, some H-back. Dee Hart is a guy that's played some who will have some situational playing opportunities in this game as well.
"I think that there's probably two of the freshmen that have sort of -- I think they're all good. Kamara had an injury, so he missed a while. He'll be back practicing today, but it's hard to get him ready to play this game right now. Tyren Jones did a good job in the last scrimmage, but really Altee and Derrick Henry have gotten the most reps and are probably the most prepared to be able to play right now."
The offensive line came in as expected with Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, Arie Kouandjio alongside him at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center and Anthony Steen and Austin Shepherd at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
AJ McCarron was the obvious first-team quarterback and Blake Sims his assumed second in line, but it was curious that Alec Morris was not listed as the third option off the bench.
Former starter Xzavier Dickson will share his starting duties with true sophomore Denzel Devall at Jack linebacker, but that move was expected with Dickson spending some time at defensive end this fall.
The rest of the starting linebackers remained the same with C.J. Mosley at Will, Trey DePriest at Mike and Adrian Hubbard at Sam.
Vinnie Sunseri ultimately won the starting job at strong safety opposite Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on paper, but the move was mostly superficial as both Landon Collins and Jarrick Williams will spend time there as well. Nick Perry, one of two seniors in the secondary, is slated to back up Clinton-Dix at free safety.
All told, 11 true freshmen made the two-deep, though none are projected to start: nose guard A'Shawn Robinson, defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, cornerback Maurice Smith, offensive tackle Grant Hill, tight end O.J. Howard, receivers Raheem Falkins and Robert Foster, long snapper Cole Mazza and tailbacks Henry and Tenpenny.
On the practice field, Alabama's freshmen hardly look green. The country's No. 1-ranked class hasn't disappointed the eye test. Throughout fall camp, you could see their potential.
More importantly, though, you could begin to see where they might fit into the defending champion Crimson Tide's plans.
This year, not the next or the year after that, some Alabama's 25 scholarship freshmen will be called on to contribute, whether it's on special teams or in a more meaningful way on offense or defense.
Last season, 10 true freshmen played for Alabama. Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon headlined the group, but players such as Denzel Devall, Darren Lake and Geno Smith made a difference as well. Kenyan Drake carried the ball 42 times at tailback and Cyrus Jones totaled 364 all-purpose yards between playing wide receiver and returning punts.
Starting Saturday, we'll begin to see how many members of Alabama's 2013 signing class make a similar impact. After watching them develop over the past few months, here's our best guess.
ILB Reuben Foster: Saban has lauded the blue-chipper's progress throughout camp, noting a "tremendous amount of progress." He's been rewarded with increased reps to help cut down on the learning curve, and it looks as if he's made the most of it. Though he'll likely start out on special teams, don't be surprised if he makes his way into the rotation at inside linebacker early on.
TE/H O.J. Howard: He's shown signs of promise in the passing game, but the staff wants to see more. The 6-6, 237-pound Howard has all the gifts athletically to terrify defenses with his wide receiver speed and a power forward size. Even if he's a ways off in terms of his comfort level with the playbook, as Saban has indicated, it's hard to see the staff keeping him off the field.
OG Grant Hill: His name has consistently come up among those who have made an impression on his teammates. And he hasn't disappointed on the field, either. The former No. 1 offensive guard in the country has played some tackle, backing up Cyrus Kouandjio on the left side. Though he won't start, you have to expect injuries will happen in the SEC. Should Kouandjio or another lineman go down, the staff could be tempted to put Hill in.
LS Cole Mazza: With long-time snapper Carson Tinker gone, the specialist role is all Mazza's. On field goal attempts and punts, he'll be the one delivering the football.
Freshmen tailbacks: Not one or two, but all four of Alabama's coveted freshmen tailbacks are expected to play as rookies. Derrick Henry is likely the group's ringleader and is the most ready to contribute, but Altee Tenpenny and Tyren Jones have impressed as well. When Alvin Kamara returns from injury, he could be an added dimension to the offense, a scat-back type who can catch the ball out of the backfield or split out at wide receiver.
WR Robert Foster: He could be the best player to not see the field for Alabama this season. The former top-five wide receiver prospect came to camp at the last moment but never looked like he missed a beat, showing off tremendous athleticism and good hands. Because of the Tide's depth at the position, he shouldn't be needed this season. But if injuries occur, he could be called on.
OL Brandon Hill: No player made better progress physically from the spring to the fall than Hill, who is listed at 6-6 and 385 pounds and shed somewhere around 50 pounds during the course of the offseason. Though he's still not the ideal weight for a tackle, you can see now why the staff was so high on him. He's big, obviously, but he's got good quickness and strength, too. Like so many of this year's starters, he could come off the bench late in games as part of the second-team offensive line.
S Jai Miller: He's no rookie at nearly 30 years old, not to mention he's 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds. Miller, who spent a decade playing professional baseball, has experienced something of a learning curve since walking on at Alabama and only recently have we started to see where he might establish a role for himself. He's shadowed Landon Collins at money (dime) defensive back of late and could be a real spark for the Tide on special teams.
DLs Jonathan Allen, Dee Liner and A'Shawn Robinson: Senior defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan called the Tide's group of rookies the smartest he'd ever seen. Saban followed up that comment by saying all three have the ability to contribute this coming season. In need of pass-rushers, Allen and Liner could come off the bench to provide that spark. And Robinson, a mammoth of a freshman at 320 pounds, could give depth at nose guard, where Brandon Ivory is coming off an injury.
CBs Maurice Smith and Eddie Jackson: The battle for a rookie to play cornerback at Alabama is so steep, most don't make it. Geno Smith's late ascent to the starting lineup last season was rare. Though Smith and Jackson fit the bill physically as 6-footers with good size, the learning curve will be difficult with Saban handling the position himself. With the Tide thin at corner, they could make an impact late in the season if they play their cards right.
A ways off
CBs Jonathan Cook and Anthony Averett: There's time left to jockey for position, but it looks like Smith and Jackson have passed fellow rookies Cook and Averett on the fast track to playing time.
LBs Tim Williams and Walker Jones: It's hard to see either Williams or Jones playing much as rookies. Jones has too much ahead of him and Williams, who has made strides during camp and looks like a young Adrian Hubbard, isn't there physically yet.
WR ArDarius Stewart: He came in as an athlete who could have played on either offense or defense. Ultimately the staff put him at wide receiver, where he's looked good, but he'll need time to adjust to playing there full time.
QBs Cooper Bateman, Parker McLeod and Luke Del Rio: Ideally, all three will redshirt the season and retain full eligibility heading into next season, when the Tide will figure out who AJ McCarron's successor will be. With Blake Sims and Alec Morris dueling it out for No. 2 now, expect the rookies to ride the bench and learn the ropes in 2013.
Well, technically speaking. Nick Saban isn't ready to stop teaching.
"Now, even though the players are moving out of the dorm, camp doesn’t really end, to me, until camp ends," the Tide's demanding head coach told reporters on Thursday. "And camp really doesn’t end to me until school starts. And school doesn’t really start to where they’ve got school stuff until next week. So we’ll continue with our meetings and all the things that we do and kind of go from there."
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DePriest, a junior with NFL potential at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, missed Tuesday's practice in Tuscaloosa. He's part of a linebacking corps that returns all four of its starters from a season ago, including All-American inside linebacker C.J. Mosley and top pass-rusher Adrian Hubbard on the outside.
Saban also announced that star wide receiver Amari Cooper would miss the next few practices with a strained foot. The Pre-Season All-SEC selection led the team with 59 catches, 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, setting nearly every Alabama rookie receiving record in the process.
Cooper wore a black no-contact jersey during practice on Tuesday.
"He’s going to be out for a few days," Saban explained, "and then he will be day-to-day. I don’t think he’s going to be hurt for a long time."
Luckily for Saban, Alabama is loaded at wide receiver. Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones, DeAndrew White and Kenny Bell all have starting experience and freshmen such as Chris Black, Robert Foster and Raheem Falkins are pushing for playing time as well.
"The receiver group has progressed very, very well from where we were at this point last year," offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said at UA's media day on August 4. "We have a couple of new players, a lot of returning guys, a lot of guys who've played a lot of games. Obviously we had some injury issues last year that helped us develop some younger players."
Alabama was able to welcome back tight end Malcolm Faciane on Tuesday after he finished a 30-day suspension for violation of team rules. The 6-foot-5, 267-pound redshirt sophomore was in line for more reps this season after the departure of Michael Williams, but will have an uphill battle now that backups such as Harrison Jones and O.J. Howard have begun making their case for playing time.
"I don’t like suspending players," Saban said. "If we’re going to punish any players or suspend any players, it’s going to be in their best interest to change their behavior so they have a better opportunity to be successful. If it’s not going to do that, I don’t see any reason to do it.
"It’s almost like raising your kids. If you’re going to spank them and it doesn’t change their behavior, why spank them? If you take their computer or their cell phone away from them and it changes their behavior, I’d say that’s the thing to do. We would only do it in the best interest of the player."
With a full week of practice already in the books, Alabama's No. 1-ranked signing class has been met with overwhelmingly positive reviews. Veteran defensive end Jeoffrey Pagan said there are some potential impact players in the class, saying of the group: "They're really smart, they're fast, they're big."
Ed Stinson, another established player on the defensive line, said the newcomers don't even look like freshmen.
"They're some big boys," he said. "They're strong."
Nick Saban, meanwhile, wasn't nearly as complimentary. That's to be expected, as the seventh-year head coach has had impressive looking players before. What he cares about is how they put those talents to use.
"You can look at that glass as half empty or half full," Saban said earlier in the week. "You see some players who can do it and you see some players who struggle to do it. I'm not disappointed. You make players aware of it. You point it out to them. 'Are you giving the kind of effort that you need? Are you having the kind of focus to execute the technique we need to have you execute?' I don't think there's any player who doesn't want to do it. It's just building the maturity and mental toughness to sustain it. That's part of the development of every player. The older players can do it because they've been through it before and can understand it. It's a process that the younger players have to go through so that they can develop those qualities and characteristics."
Saban wouldn't say who has disappointed and who has impressed. That's not his way. But this reporter has no such qualms. In this week's edition of Alabama Intel, we look at which freshmen have stood out so far.
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Michael Williams was as dependable as they come, starting 41 games in his four years on campus. He was big, hard-nosed and reliable, a force blocking downhill in the running game and a sure-handed target in the red zone. Brad Smelley and Preston Dial before him were the same way, blue-collar players who put their hand on the ground and went to work everyday.
Brian Vogler doesn't want that identity to change. Rather, he'd like to see it evolve.
"Each year you have a different mold of a guy," he explained. "When you watch film on each guy, you try to take something they do and bring it into your game. That's what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to pull everything I see out of their talents and try to mix it in my game."
At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, his size is the first thing you notice. And despite what he'd describe as lackluster athleticism, he can move. A former high school basketball player, he knows how to create space and use his long arms to shield defenders. That's only translated to three career receptions thus far, but that should change as he becomes a focal point of the offense.
Nick Saban called Vogler "one of the top conditioned guys coming back from summer," and praised his ability to sustain. Much of fall camp has been about promoting mental toughness for Alabama's seventh-year head coach, and he was able to point to Vogler on Tuesday as an example of just that.
"You create your own standard of superiority whatever you're trying to do," Saban said. "But the challenge is, Can you sustain that? Can you continue to do it with consistency and consistency in performance? That's one thing that he has, the mental toughness and maturity to do so it allows you to continue to improve."
Trust has never been in short supply at the tight end position for Saban. Unfortunately the ability to create big plays has.
If there's been one noticeable gap in Alabama's offense in recent years, it's been that no tight end has had more than 35 catches in a season since 2007. This past year was an all-time low as Williams and Co. combined for a paltry 33 catches and 249 yards. Meanwhile a new wave of tight ends like Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert snagged 50 receptions and 685 yards.
Vogler isn't likely to develop into that type of player overnight. But combined with backups Harrison Jones, O.J. Howard and Jalston Fowler, the position could become more potent in 2013.
Fowler's transition to a utility running back/fullback/H-back role was cut short by season-ending knee surgery last season, but now he's back where he left off, according to Vogler, who called the bowling ball of a back a "hard-hitting guy who's not afraid of anybody."
"That's the exact same guy you're going to see at the H-back position," he said.
Fowler's ability to play multiple spots on the field could be of use to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Fowler said he had begged coaches to let him catch the football, and last year they finally listened. After having things end tragically, he said he's coming out with something to prove.
"I've got a big chip on my shoulder," he said. "I'm trying to show the world what I'm worth."
The wild card in it all is Howard, an early enrollee who came to campus in January and immediately began making waves. If there's anyone on the roster capable of taking the tight end position into the 21st century, it's him. A former four-star recruit, he was a "monster on tape," according to scouts. He has the size at 6-foot-6 and 237 pounds to dominate cornerbacks and the track-level speed to blow by linebackers.
Vogler called Howard a "whole new dimension to this offense" in the spring and praised his athleticism and ability to run after the catch. If he made the right kind of progress, Vogler said he thought he'd be a viable part of the offense.
On Tuesday, Vogler revisited the subject, praising the way the former blue-chip prospect has come into camp eager to do all the little things right.
"He's working really hard," Vogler said. "He asks me questions if he has any problems or wants to know how to do things. He's one of those guys that comes into work everyday with a really good work ethic and tries to learn."
Alabama players report today and begin practicing under the direction of coach Nick Saban and the staff tomorrow. To get you ready for all the action, here's a piece-by-piece look at some areas and players to watch.
Making their move
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No. 84 Brian Vogler
Redshirt junior tight end
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No. 82 Harrison Jones
Redshirt junior tight end/H-back
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Amari Cooper, Cyrus Kouandjio, AJ McCarron, C.J. Mosley and T.J. Yeldon already were selected by our three mock general managers. But who else will one day be considered one of the greatest to ever lace it up in Tuscaloosa?
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