Spring preview: Tight ends

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In 2011, the H-back position accounted for less than 10 percent of the Crimson Tide’s offense. It’s a surprising statistic considering AJ McCarron was in his first year under center. Typically, inexperienced quarterbacks use the position as a safety net.

Brad Smelley did finish the season with 34 catches -- a career high -- and four touchdowns while working at H-back. But the senior didn’t have much help. Michael Williams, the taller, faster, more athletic option at H-back, turned in just 16 grabs his junior year. Back-ups Brian Vogler and Harrison Jones accounted for one reception each.

For the Crimson Tide’s offense to progress in the passing game -- as many believe it will with Trent Richardson gone and Doug Nussmeier now at offensive coordinator -- wide receivers and H-backs much become a bigger part of the equation.

The incumbents

Williams has all the attributes to make a big-time pass-catching H-back. Until now he’s been primarily a blocker, and at 270 pounds he’s been successful. But in his final year of eligibility with the Tide, he must step up and become a bigger part of the offense. He’s a mismatch waiting to happen, too quick and athletic for linebackers, too tall and strong for defensive backs.

It will be interesting to watch the development of Jones as well. He is the brother of All-American offensive lineman Barrett Jones and is going to get a look at H-back in the spring and fall. Nick Saban said he’s been impressed with his intelligence and how he’s gotten bigger and stronger in his third year at the Capstone. He’s got the look of Smelley, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound guy who’s willing to mix it up on the line as well as soft hands to catch the ball out of the back field.

If Jones and Vogler can fill out in 2012, McCarron could have a trio of capable H-backs to rotate in and out of the lineup. Vogler is a giant at 6-foot-7 and comes with the credentials -- the No. 7 tight end in the country coming out of high school.

The challengers

Alabama has signed a potential H-back in each of the last two recruiting classes, Malcolm Faciane in 2011 and Kurt Freitag in 2012. Both prospects were touted more as run blockers than pass catchers coming out of high school. Faciane came into UA at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds and has a similar build and attributes to Williams. Freitag reminds people more of Smelley, and although he’s expected to redshirt his first year with the Tide, he could eventually have a similar impact to Smelley, both in the run game and passing game.

The future of the position could change for Alabama with the current commitment of 2013 tight end O.J. Howard. At 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, Howard has a rare combination of size and athleticism that the Tide have not seen at the position in a long time. He can do things that other players at his position can only dream of, and with that, he has the potential to change how the coaching staff utilizes the position going forward.

Greg Ostendorf contributed to this report.