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August 21, 2010TUSCALOOSA _ It was a statistic that probably caused a few double-takes, possibly even one from University of Alabama coach Nick Saban.
"Preston Dial had three," he said after last week's closed scrimmage at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
That's three as in receptions, for 60 yards and two touchdowns. In comparison, Dial had that many catches all of last season for 25 yards and he still has yet to notch his first career touchdown.
"We had a pretty good day," Dial said, quickly adding: "We made a lot of mistakes we have to correct."
On an offense that has eight returning starters -- everyone but a tackle, guard and tight end -- his success is indicative of just how good Alabama could be with the ball this season. Granted, there are players with higher profiles and bigger numbers, but just as important are the guys who don't always get noticed for carrying out their assignments.
Those little things almost always add up in a big way and not just with Dial, but the tight ends as a whole. Granted, while the Crimson Tide will miss the lanky Colin Peek and his 26 receptions for 313 yards and three touchdowns, coaches and fans alike are encouraged by the overall look and versatility of this talented group.
"The tight ends are obviously very important to this offense," said offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who likes to use two-tight end formations in ways to make it difficult for defenses to determine if a run or pass is coming at them. On paper, the "Y" is the more traditional tight end while the "H" is the H-back, sort of like a mobile fullback with similar responsibilities. The more they can do, the tougher they are to both read and stop.
"You have to know how to play both in order to start, in order to play on this team," said converted defensive end Michael Williams, who is expected to start with Dial this season. "Y most of the time is blocking. That's just his job, but he can receive too. The focus is on blocking.
"H does a lot of moving, does a lot of the dirty work. Blocks the Mike linebacker, the outside linebacker, sometimes the safeties. So the H is more of a dirty job, you could say, but they go hand in hand."
Ask just about anyone on the Tide about Dial and they're probably eventually use the word "dirty," only in this case it's anything but a negative. Time and time again he was giving up his body and making big blocks for everyone including the Heisman Trophy winner last season, while bringing up his career reception total to five.
"That H position is one where a guy has to be able to both play on the lines, move off the lines, be able to handle things out in space," McElwain continued. "We had kind of an unsung hero last year obviously in Preston Dial. He's done an outstanding job for us. He's done a lot of the dirty work, what Travis McCall did the year before. He's really accepted that role and done a good job."
Behind the scenes, coaches have also been praising Williams' effort and the strides he's made in blocking.
"I see myself making the same plays," he said about replacing Peek.
Junior Brad Smelley, a former high school quarterback, has reworked his body to be more physical and during the spring appeared poised to take over Cory Reamer's duties on special teams. Junior Chris Underwood has already become a special-teams fixture. Sophomore Michael Bowman recently made the move from wide receiver and 6-foot-7 true freshman Brian Vogler looks like a Peek clone. Both could contribute this season.
"It's scary how quick they are with how tall they are," said the former standout from UMS-Wright in Mobile, adding about Vogler: "I expect good things from him."
Comments like that have become the norm for Dial, who's always been a popular player with his teammates, the kind you might hear someone say they'd want to be in a foxhole with, and is one of just a handful of seniors on the roster.
When the veterans called the team together to ratchet up the intensity this week he was the first to speak. Dial's face and his voice were all over the ESPN all-access show, including his comment that he's loved and hated Saban ever since the coach arrived (as a compliment). He also was quick to put last week's scrimmage in proper context, pointing out that with so many returning players the offense should have been ahead of the revamped defense.
"They have a lot of talent on that side of the ball," said Dial, one of many players who expects the defense to fare better in today's final fall scrimmage. "It's going to be a lot of fun to watch."
So is he, whether in the trenches or breaking out into the open, where maybe he'll finally get the touchdown catch that's been a long time coming.
"Preston's a great leader," senior quarterback Greg McElroy said. "He's really a high-energy guy. I wouldn't call him a cut-up, but he's a really funny guy, a guy guys like to be around and we really respect what he has to say.
"For the guys who have been here for a long time, like Preston and myself and some other guys, we've experienced 6-7 seasons, we've experienced 7-6 seasons, we've experienced 14-0 seasons. We've kind of experienced both ends of the spectrum. We understand that average is not acceptable around here."