Which Newcomers Will Impact Tide?

For the past few weeks, there have been opportunities to read in depth about the upcoming football season, meaning to read the previews of the teams that will be playing. For the most part, study is confined to those teams on the Alabama football schedule, along with Southeastern Conference teams not on the Crimson Tide slate and a few national championship contenders.

A staple of those previews is a category devoted to newcomers who might help the team. If that has been mentioned in Alabama football outlooks, it has escaped notice.

That is not to say that a newcomer (we're not talking about redshirts who have been in the program for a year or longer or upperclassmen who have not yet contributed) will not help Alabama. It is very likely that an incoming freshman or junior college transfer will be a contributor, because Bama Coach Nick Saban has that history. Saban has no compunction against using a freshman if that player has earned the job.

A year ago we suggested that a "good surprise" player for the Tide might be tailback T.J. Yeldon, but we also admitted that Yeldon had proved in the spring of 2012 that he was a very fine player. Yeldon, of course, has a tremendous impact as a freshman.

Believing there will be a newcomer who will have a positive impact on the 2013 Alabama football team is not difficult. Pin-pointing who that newcomer might be is another matter.

We have previously pointed out that players at the so-called "skill" positions – running back, wide receiver, cornerback – often have an advantage in earning early playing time because – as the moniker suggests – they have the athletic skill to do the job.

Another factor in a player having an impact on a team is that team needing the help at that player's position. Dwight Stephenson, regarded by many as the greatest center in Alabama football history, didn't play center as a Tide freshman because Terry Jones was entrenched at the position.

There are some positions – notably quarterback, but also offensive line – where the learning curve is so steep that it is unrealistic to expect a newcomer to step in. That wouldn't be the case at quarterback for Alabama in any event with A.J. McCarron returning for his third year as a starter. There are schools where playing a raw quarterback has been successful in the past and there are teams that are counting on it to happen this season, but a newcomer at quarterback ordinarily is not a recipe for winning.

As is usually the case under Saban, Alabama has an outstanding group of candidates in the incoming class that begins practice Friday. There are few in the group who could not have had his choice of school or coach, and each chose Alabama and Nick Saban.

Some were seen in the spring, although a disappointment was tailback Derrick Henry, considered by some to be the Player of the Year in high school football last year, breaking his leg. He is expected to be full speed in fall camp, along with three other highly-rated freshmen running backs. Wide receiver Raheem Falkins was also outstanding in spring work.

Watch videotape of linebacker Reuben Foster, ranked the number one middle linebacker in the country, and it's difficult not to project him as an immediate helper. But how much can he impact a team that has C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest returning as starting inside linebackers?

Recently watching a re-run of Alabama's Southeastern Conference Championship Game win over Georgia, I was struck with how well Brian Vogler – a back-up tight end who got considerable playing time in a two-tight set – performed. Nevertheless, the tight end of choice on the 2012 national championship team was Michael Williams.

Any number of newcomers could be singled out as the one who will have the greatest impact for the Tide this year, but based on those few minutes we were able to see tight end O.J. Howard last spring, he is our nominee.

Howard, 6-6, 237, might have been brighter on the football radar if he had played for hometown powerhouse Prattville instead of Autauga Academy, but he didn't get overlooked by Alabama recruiters (or by Scout.com recruiting experts, who tabbed him the number one tight end prospect in the nation).

Historically, Alabama tight ends (including Williams) are glorified tackles, blockers first. Howard showed that he has the strength to block. Moreover, he looks like a pass receiver, and has exceptional speed.

College football fans generally want the ball thrown more often to the tight end. If Howard proves to be capable, he could be the newcomer of impact for the 2013 Crimson Tide.

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