September 22, 2013 1:11:40 AM
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Saturday was a day of firsts for the top-ranked and defending national champion Alabama.
The Colorado State Rams tripped east for their first game in Tuscaloosa. Former Crimson Tide offensive coordinator Jim McElwain made his first return to Bryant-Denny Stadium since leaving Alabama after the 2011 season, this time as Colorado State's head coach.
It was also the first home game of the 2013 season for the Crimson Tide. A season opener in Atlanta against Virginia Tech was followed up with a bye week and a road game against Texas A&M. But the 2013 version of the Crimson Tide finally stepped onto the field Saturday in front of the home crowd for the first time.
This means the freshmen on Alabama's roster got their first taste of what it's like to play in Bryant-Denny Stadium. In a town where the next big thing is often the main topic of discussion, the biggest headline in Alabama's 31-6 victory may have been the highly anticipated home debut of several new faces for the Crimson Tide.
With the injury bug making its way through the team and a few suspensions being handed out, several of those new faces got their opportunities a little sooner than they may have expected.
Of those young guys, freshman O.J. Howard was perhaps the most closely watched. The 6-foot-6 240-pounder from Autauga Academy in Pratville, Ala., was widely considered the top tight end prospect in the 2013 recruiting class and a match up nightmare for opposing defenses.
Howard lived up to his billing for the Crimson Tide in their second game of the year against Texas A&M, coming up big for his team. He earned his first career start against the Aggies and went on to catch three passes for 68 yards, including a critical 26-yard grab in the fourth quarter. His blend of size and speed was a problem for the Texas A&M defense all game.
On Saturday, Howard was once again an easy find for quarterback A.J. McCarron, who went to the towering tight end time and time again, exploiting the mismatch Howard had almost any defender.
Howard had three catches for 38 yards, but he was targeted five times in all and came up with several key blocks in the run game. He was a big part of the game plan, and Crimson Tide fans can expect to see him integrated into the offense much more.
With six catches for 106 yards on the year, Howard is third of all Crimson Tide pass catchers through three games of the season. The numbers aren't overly impressive, but most agree that Alabama's deepest position on the field is at receiver. It's tough to get on the field anywhere as a freshman for this team, but getting McCarron to look your way over any of the other handful of established route runners in a critical situation is no easy task.
"We all practice the same amount," wide receiver DeAndrew White said of Howard and the younger guys. "We were able to step in and contribute to the team when our name is called."
With so many high-profile high school recruits in their first season with the Crimson Tide, there were, several other newcomers getting their first action in front of the home fans.
One of those newcomers was freshman Eddie Jackson. A wide receiver in high school, Jackson made his first appearance ever for the Tide on Saturday. Well, he made a little more than an appearance.
Jackson started at cornerback for Nick Saban's ever complicated defense, making him the first freshman to start that position for the Crimson Tide this early in the season since Dee Milliner did it in the 2010 season.
He and sophomore Bradley Sylve both drew their first career starts in the Alabama secondary. "We played about five guys at cornerback and just kind of rotated them in there with the idea of we're going to see if somebody can play the position with any consistency, do their assignment, and do their job." Saban said. "That's an area we need to get better at."
Fans in Tuscaloosa also got their first personal viewing of the new members of the backfield in Alabama's stable of running backs. Freshmen Altee Tenpenny and Derrick Henry combined for three carries for 11 yards in the fourth quarter.
Another first for Alabama Saturday night was the appearance of redshirt freshman Chris Black. He made his first career reception in the fourth quarter, scampering into the end zone for a 14-yard touchdown.
With the clock winding down, freshman A'Shawn Robinson, a mammoth defensive lineman from Fort Worth, Texas, sacked quarterback Garret Grayson on the last play. The sack was Robinson's second of the year.
The future is as bright as ever in Tuscaloosa, but the new faces still need to improve.
"Some of the younger guys aren't used to adjusting and getting the calls right," senior linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "This gives them a lot of experience, so hopefully they'll build off this momentum."