TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It’s a number that devout University of Alabama football fans are familiar with, and it figures to be a regular part of the Crimson Tide offense again this season — 82.
That’s the number Hall of Fame player Ozzie Newsome sported when he suited up for the Crimson Tide from 1974-77. It now is worn by another player with an NFL connection — sophomore Irv Smith Jr.
Smith has been one of the ascending talents of the Crimson Tide offseason, almost like a secret to those who don’t keep a close eye on the program, although his teammates have had no trouble raving about his progress.
“A lot of people haven’t heard much about him yet just because he didn’t play a whole lot last year, but this guy has a ton of talent,” junior tight end Hale Hentges said in the spring. “I’m sure you guys are going to be seeing him coming up in the coming season.”
Wednesday night, when Nick Saban was holding his eclectic news conference that went from talking about the team’s focus to declaring that players who claim “I’m saving it for the game” are full of themselves, largely overlooked a nugget about his three veteran tight ends.
The position might end up being the Crimson Tide’s version of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that according to mythology guards the entrance to Hades (or in the first Harry Potter book, Fluffy).
“I think all of them have improved,” Saban said. “I think they’ve all gotten bigger, they’ve all gotten stronger. I think they’ve all done really well.
“I think systematically, we’ll probably use the tight end a little better.”
Although Alabama will miss O.J. Howard — the first-round NFL draft selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who played in 57 games with 37 starts — Saban has made getting the position more involved in the passing game a priority.
Having Rob Gronkowski’s former tight ends coach with the New England Patriots as Alabama’s new offensive coordinator seems to be an obvious step in that direction. But the players know they still need to progress the old-fashioned way and earn everything under Brian Daboll and Saban.
“Systematically, I’m not making comparisons [to last year],” Saban said. “Good coaches coach good players to play well. We have some good players there and I think our coaches are doing a good job of helping them play well. That’s what our expectations and goals are for them.”
With 29 games under his belt, Hentges has stepped up as an every-down blocking option, with Miller Forristall developing into more of an H-back/receiving tight end. He didn’t do much blocking in high school, so there was a bit of a transition to the college game, but as the 6-foot-5, 238-pound sophomore put it:
“You play tight end knowing you got to get your hands dirty. Playing tight end is still playing tight end. We still block, we still catch passes. You can’t really change the position.”
Alabama also added two tight ends in the recruiting Class of 2017: Major Tennison (6-5, 245) and Kedrick James (6-5, 272). Ronnie Clark slid over from running back to learn the H-tight end responsibilities in the spring and early parts of fall (he’s been back with the shorthanded running backs this week).
Smith, listed at 6-4, 245, played in nine games last season, mostly on special teams. He has yet to catch his first collegiate pass, but his versatility is both apparent and a reflection of his NFL pedigree.
Smith’s father, now known as Irv Sr., was a highly regarded tight end at Notre Dame, which led to his being selected 20th overall by the New Orleans Saints in the 1993 NFL Draft.
Over a seven-year career, mostly with the Saints, he played in 95 games and caught 183 passes for 1,788 yards and 15 touchdowns. He also suited up for a season with the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns.
Irv Sr.’s brother, Ed, also was an impressive athlete. After being drafted in the seventh round by the Chicago White Sox, he turned down offers from Florida and Penn State to play professional baseball. After four different organizations and reaching the Triple-A level, he went back to football at the age of 26.
Following stints with the Lions and Eagles, Ed Smith played two seasons with the Atlanta Falcons and one with a team some Alabama still remember: the XFL’s Birmingham Thunderbolts, in 2001.
Smith isn’t quite on their level yet, but he turned a corner during the spring when earning one of the Jerry Duncan “I Like to Practice” Awards (along with Keith Holcombe and Jamar King). On A-Day, the scrimmage to close spring workouts, he had the most receptions with 3 for 37 yards while playing for the White (second-team offense).
It could be a sign of things to come.
“Irv Smith’s a very, very good player,” Forristall said.