Traditionally, the tight end is a hybrid. He's part receiver, part offensive lineman. And when he lines up in a traditional position, next to a tackle, ordinarily he defines the strong side of the offensive lineup. But it is not unusual to see a tight end split out a few yards from the tackle. And it is not uncommon to see the tight end as part of the backfield, in the slot as a so-called H-Back. Nor is it a surprise to see the tight end move prior to the snap, from the right side to the left side, and/or from the line to the slot, and/or from the slot to the line.
Some teams, usually known as wide-open passing teams with as many as five wide receivers, use a tight end little or not at all.
Alabama Head Coach Mike Shula has made it clear that the tight end is an important part of the Alabama offense. And he is primarily a traditional tight end, expected to block for the running game and sometimes in full protection on pass plays. But he is also expected to be a good pass-catcher, and it is Bama's intention to use the tight ends as receivers. A case can be made that the Crimson Tide offense has shown little interest in the tight end as receiver under Shula, but fairness dictates that last year's statistics be overlooked. That's partly because a new offensive system was installed in a matter of days, partly because two quarterbacks and three tight ends were injured during the season.
And the injury bug continued in the spring. While most of the medical attention was on quarterbacks Brodie Croyle and Spencer Pennington missing all team contact work, the same was true of three scholarshipped tight ends. David Cavan, who started eight games in 2003, missed the final three games of last season after suffering a knee injury that required surgery. Clint Johnston, who started three games, was hampered with a neck injury that kept him out of three games and spring practice. And Greg McLain, a former starting fullback who moved to tight end because of the lack of depth at that position, missed spring work with an elbow injury.
Cavan, 6-5, 252, is an upcoming senior. Even before suffering the season-ending knee injury he had been handicapped by having to play with a cast on a broken right hand. He has played each of the past two seasons, a little-used back-up in 2002 after not playing at all in 2000 or 2001. He has a total of four pass receptions for 46 yards and one touchdown.
Johnston, 6-4, 245, was redshirted in 2001 and has been a regular the past two years. The upcoming junior is the leading returning receiver among the tight ends. He had seven receptions for 73 yards as a freshman in 2002 and six catches for 46 yards and one touchdown last season.
McLain, 6-2, 244, will be a junior. As a true freshman in 2002 he played in 12 games and started at six. He had come to Alabama as a linebacker and was impressive in early August work on defense, but moved to fullback to help with the depth situation. Then last season he moved again, to tight end. He caught two passes, both against Mississippi State, for 34 yards.
In their absence, three non-scholarshipped players got most of the practice time at tight end in the spring. They are Barrett Earnest, a 6-4, 230-pound redshirt freshman; Rusty Hill, a 6-1, 226-pound sophomore; and Will Denniston, a 6-2, 217-pound sophomore.
McLain moving from fullback, where he started in six games as a true freshman in 2002, is evidence of another area of versatility among tight ends. It is not unusual for a player signed as a tight end to move to another position. He may become a fullback, grow into an offensive lineman, or move to defense as a linebacker or lineman. That's probably why many teams sign a number of tight ends and why almost as soon as tight ends are added, there is speculation as to what position the player might play in college.
This year Alabama signed three tight ends, and one has already been penciled in at another position. The newcomers are Nick Walker, a 6-5, 235-pounder from Brundidge; Trent Davidson, 6-5, 242, from Brewton; and Travis McCall, 6-2, 235, from Prattville. McCall has already been moved, even before reporting to Bama. He'll start out as a defensive end. And while Davidson is listed as a tight end on the Alabama depth chart, he is considered a top athlete who could play a number of positions. Davidson is also expected to challenge for the job of long snapper, an area where Bama struggled in the spring.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one in a series of essays on what Alabama might reasonably expect from each position in order to have a successful 2004 season.