TUSCALOOSA — With less than two weeks before Alabama’s season opener, Nick Saban is usually doing his best to temper the team’s annually lofty expectations.
But coming out of last Saturday’s final preseason scrimmage, the veteran Crimson Tide head coach sounded downright sanguine when discussing his relatively experienced offense — all except for one position.
“I think offensively we're good. We've got more guys with more experience, and the only position we don't have a lot of experience is really tight end,” Saban said Saturday afternoon. “Every other position that you point to, there's guys that have a significant amount of playing time, whether they were starters or not. We have a little bit more age, a little bit more maturity (overall).”
Coming into the season, Alabama’s offense will feature six returning junior starters — quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, receivers Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and DeVonta Smith, and offensive tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills Jr. There are a handful of experienced talent at other key spots, including redshirt junior offensive lineman Landon Dickerson, junior running back Najee Harris, sophomore receiver Jaylen Waddle and redshirt senior offensive lineman Matt Womack, just to name a few.
But following the offseason departures of Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr., as well as the late-summer transfer of Kedrick James to Southern Methodist, the Tide’s tight end position remains a bit of a quandary, even with the regular season just around the corner.
In fact, redshirt junior Miller Forristall represents the only Alabama tight end with any quality experience, having made two starts as a true freshman in 2016. Forristall has participated in 33 career games entering this season, with the next closest player at the position in terms of game experience is sophomore Major Tennison, who’s played sparingly in nine games over the past two seasons.
“We have some guys: we have Major Tennison, we have Miller Forristall, we have Giles Amos,” Tagovailoa said of the tight end position last week. “I know not too many of you guys know who these guys are, but I think they're gonna be a big asset to us this upcoming year.”
Tagovailoa’s optimism aside, the 6-foot-4 and 245-pound Amos might be the biggest unknown amongst the unrecognizable group, even to some of his own teammates. That said, the senior walk-on from Georgia has reportedly done well with increased opportunities with the first-team offense throughout this preseason.
“He does a lot. He kind of, for me, just got on the radar, but he can definitely do it all,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said last week. “He’s got strong hands, physical and he’s definitely one of those guys that’s kind of hard to guard. I think he brings a lot to the table.”
Added Saban: “Giles has done a good job in taking advantage of the opportunity that he has because of the lack of depth that we have at that position. He’s gotten a lot of repetitions and he’s taken advantage of it.”
Still, the fact that Alabama could very well rely on a walk-on among its two-deep could be reason enough for concern at the position, something Saban expressed once again Saturday.
“I don't think that we're where we need to be at that position, but those guys are all working hard,” Saban said. “It's important to them. They're making progress, they're all improving. That's all we can ask for.”
Among the other contenders at tight end include an athletic redshirt freshman that converted from linebacker this offseason (Cameron Latu) and a still-raw true freshman (Jahleel Billingsley) — both of whom could become role players at the H-back spot given their natural receiving ability.
Alabama traditionally has two designated tight end spots on its weekly depth chart — a traditional tight end and the H-back — but in terms of how it lines up on Saturdays in the fall, a two-tight end set might just be as irrelevant as the wishbone in the Crimson Tide’s wide-open offense of the past two seasons.
And it’d be completely justified given the coaching staff’s clear ambivalence at tight end.
“We have got to make improvement at that position. We have guys that have ability, (but) they don’t have a lot of experience,” Saban said last week. “They need to develop confidence in … what to do, how to do it, why it’s important to do it that way. And then when they go out there and execute, do it the right way so that develop the confidence that they need to go out and do their job well.
“So I think we have guys that are capable of doing that. Miller’s probably the only guy that’s sort of old enough that has enough experience that kind of gets it. I think the other guys are going to have to develop that and they’ve made progress.”