Block-first mentality

Travis McCall was barely used in Alabama's passing game through four years. But as a H-back he was a crushing blocker that anchored the Crimson Tide's rushing attack. With the Bills, the undrafted free agent could land a spot in a similar role. BuffaloFootballReport.com talked to McCall this week. Premium members, get the story inside...

Every off-season, NFL teams try out basketball players in search of the next Antonio Gates — some out-of-this-galaxy diamond in the rough. The game is changing. Athletic, receiving tight ends are at a premium and scouts are on the prowl.

Watch your back Tyler Meyers. Soon, they'll be after the Buffalo Sabres' 6-foot-8 top prospect.

But amidst the glitz and glamour, there's a guy like Travis McCall. The undrafted free agent tight end from Alabama could care less if passes are thrown in his zip code.

"I guess I just love blocking," McCall chuckled by phone this week. "It's just something that once you start going, you try to continue to do it."

McCall will shoot for an H-back role in Turk Schonert's offense with the Bills. After failing to sign or draft a true fullback this off-season, it appears the Bills will continue using tight ends as lead blockers. In Alabama, McCall dominated in this role.

The H-back is an unconventional position that demands unselfishness. Travis McCall played the second most total games in Alabama football history, yet was virtually ignored in the passing game. In 51 games, McCall had 24 receptions. Instead, he was an H-back anchor in ‘Bama's run-heavy offense. McCall often lined up in the backfield as a fullback and motioned into various spots to pick off defenders.

To crack Buffalo's roster, McCall would probably need to unseat either Derek Fine or Derek Schouman, two players that also fit the H-back mold. Rarely do teams keep four tight ends. But with four years of blocking in the SEC under his belt, McCall should push Fine and Schouman to the brink. He's big (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) and, most of all, physical.

That's what it takes to be a dominant H-back, McCall says. Roll-up-your-sleeves physicality.

"You have to be physical," McCall said, "and get out and catch passes."

Some scouts say McCall has plenty of receiving ability but simply was not employed in Alabama's passing game. Not exactly a finesse team, Alabama needed a selfless H-back to stay home and block with regularity. McCall drew high praise from head coach Nick Saban during the season.

"He's one of the hardest-working players on the team," Saban told The Birmingham News. "I've never heard the guy complain since I've been here. The guy sets a great example every day."

At practice, McCall practiced with offensive linemen against Alabama's defensive line while his fellow tight ends danced with cornerbacks. McCall often lined up behind offensive tackle Andre Smith, the sixth overall pick in this year's draft. As a result, Alabama mashed through savage SEC defenses for 185 rushing yards per game.

Even though the lack of statistical production was probably why McCall was not drafted, he doesn't resent his role at ‘Bama. Nope, McCall doesn't look back at those four years with a what-could-have-been grudge.

"I accepted my role," McCall said. "I knew that was my role so I just wanted to go out and do my job. If you can get the ball more of course you would like it but it wasn't an issue with me. I got to college on my blocking and that's what I continued to do."

Like an offensive lineman, McCall cultivated personal battles. He didn't have the glory-oriented mindset so contagious amongst today's tight ends. Rather, he cherished those 1-on-1, play-in and play-out duals against defensive linemen.

As a freshman, McCall went blow-for-blow with Mississippi State's Willie Evans, who now plays for the Atlanta Falcons. And over his career, he often took on a pair of 2009 first-round picks, LSU's Tyson Jackson and Tennessee's Robert Ayers.

The Bills may have found a post-draft steal. Not many tight ends are left on an island against the best defensive end in the country. Jackson, taken third overall by the Kansas City Chiefs, was a freight train at LSU. Yet McCall traded body shots with body shots.

Alabama beat LSU, 27-21 last fall. Jackson had zero solo tackles.

"It was great competition," McCall said. "We battled for the whole game. I mean, he's a great player and a good defensive end. He has a lot of talent."

Usually the only way undrafted hopefuls crack a roster is by a scintillating catch in the preseason, blindside sack, or some other type of highlight-reel play. That won't happen for McCall. His role doesn't lend itself to theater. It's not entertaining. It's Lowes, not Abercrombie & Fitch.

So how does McCall get noticed and make the team? The answer is simple.

"Just have to go out there every day and go hard and not let up at any time," McCall said. "If you go out there and work hard every day, someone will notice you."

thdunne@gmail.com


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