Our series examining the best players at every Alabama football position in the nine-year Nick Saban Era (2007-15) can hardly be conclusive, and that’s particularly true at a position such as tight end. The tight end in a Saban offense is primarily prominent in the run game as a blocker, but he can also be a weapon as a pass receiver.
The statistics on things like “blocking” and simply “carrying out assignment” are locked up in file cabinets, perhaps, but aren’t available for a comparison exercise. Thus we are left to examine the tight ends under Saban based on reception statistics, a very slim NFL draft record, and – most of all -- personal observation and memory. Thus, it becomes quite subjective and justifiably debatable.
There have been no Alabama tight ends under Saban who have been All-America and the closest to All-SEC has been second team selection Colin Peek in 2009.
Nevertheless, we soldier on.
In Saban’s first year at Alabama, 2007, three men were listed as the No. 1 tight end. Nick Walker had 23 receptions for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns. Travis McCall had 6 catches for 45 yards. Preston Dial had 1 catch for 21 yards.
In 2008, the same three were considered first team. Walker moved up to the number two receiver (behind wide receiver Julio Jones) with 32 receptions for 324 yards and 2 TDs. McCall stayed about the same with 7-52 yards, and Dial 1-8. Walker and McCall were seniors and finished with their Bama careers.
Colin Peek came in for the 2009 season and took over the number one job ahead of Dial, who was a junior. Peek had 26 catches for 313 yards and 3 touchdowns while newcomer Mike Williams had 3 receptions for 29 yards and Dial 3-25. Peek had a memorable touchdown catch of a 17-yard pass from Greg McElroy that put the Tide up 26-13 over No. 1 ranked Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game en route to the 32-13 win that set the Tide up for the national championship win over Texas.
Dial was finally the No. 1 tight end as a senior in 2010 and responded with his biggest year as a receiver, 25 catches for 264 yards and 3 TDs. Williams, a sophomore, had 8 catches for 100 yards and a touchdown, and Chris Underwood, a junior, had 3 receptions, 36 yards, 1 TD.
Williams was the No. 1 tight end in both national championship seasons of 2011 and 2012 and would become the only Alabama tight end of the Saban Era selected in the NFL draft, taken in the seventh round by Detroit.
In 2011 Williams had 16 receptions for 191 yards and 2 touchdowns. Underwood had 2 catches for 12 yards and newcomer Brian Vogler had one catch for 6 yards.
In 2012 Williams caught 24 passes for 183 yards and 4 touchdowns and Vogler had 2 receptions for 21 yards.
In 2013, Vogler was joined by freshman O.J. Howard in the Alabama tight end corps, and Howard was the leading receiver among tight ends with 14 catches for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a memorable 52-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in a 38-17 win over LSU. (Remarkably, that TD against LSU would be his last until this year’s national championship game.) Vogler would have 8 receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown. Malcolm Faciane saw limited action with 2 catches for 14 yards, and it was also the debut season of 6-5, 304-pound Brandon Greene adding tight end duties to his offensive tackle playing time.
Greene continued as a parttime tight end in 2014, and made his one and only reception at a most important time, a 24-yard yard reception on the first play over overtime in the Tide’s win at LSU. Vogler and Howard continued as Bama’s co-number one tight ends with Howard again the leading receiver among players at that position. Howard had 17 catches for 260 yards, Vogler 6-27 with 1 touchdown, Faciane 2 catches for 2 yards.
Howard gets the “easy memory” advantage in this series because of his Most Valuable Offensive Player performance in the College Football Playoff national championship game victory over Clemson for the 2015 title. In that game he had 5 receptions for 208 yards, touchdown plays of 53 and 51 yards, and a 63-yard catch-and-run that led to another Bama TD in that 45-40 win. For the season he had 38 catches for 602 yards and the 2 touchdowns, tops among Tide tight ends in the Saban Era.
Also in the tight end corps last season were Ty Flournoy-Smith with 3 catches for 48 yards, Dakota Ball with 1 catch for 8 yards, and true freshman Hale Hentges with 1-5, along with Greene in certain run situations.
Among the real contenders as best tight end of the Saban Era, Howard has been far-and-away the most effective as a pass receiver, though probably not high up as a run blocker. Nevertheless, the threat he provides and his career totals of 69 receptions for 1,131 yards and 4 touchdowns makes him No. 1 even with a final year remaining in 2016.
We lean towards Mike Williams as No. 2, Colin Peek (with just one season at Bama) third, and Preston Dial fourth.