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What Alabama transfer TE Jahleel Billingsley brings to Texas

The Chicago product is an athletic pass catcher who wasn’t asked to block much by Steve Sarkisian in 2020.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, the Texas Longhorns officially announced the addition of former Alabama Crimson Tide tight end Jahleel Billingsley, who committed on a visit over the weekend.

A January enrollee who is listed as a senior with the potential of two remaining seasons of eligibility, Billingsley signed with Alabama in the 2019 recruiting class as a consensus four-star prospect ranked as the No. 308 player nationally and the No. 11 tight end, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.

For Billingsley’s first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, his position coach was Texas tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Jeff Banks while Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian was his offensive coordinator, so it was hardly a surprise when Billingsley visited Austin and pledged to the Longhorns only days after entering the NCAA transfer portal.

As a freshman, Billingsley played sparingly with two catches for 19 yards before emerging as a receiving threat in 2020 as a backup to blocking tight end Morris Forristal with 18 catches for 287 yards and three touchdowns. In 2021, Cameron Latu passed Billingsley for playing time and played a big role in the passing game, but Billingsley still made an impact in Bill O’Brien’s offense with 17 catches for 256 yards and three touchdowns. Among Billingsley’s 36 appearances for the Crimson Tide, he started five times.

In Billingsley, Texas is getting an athletic pass catcher at 6’4, 230 pounds who ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at a regional camp for The Opening with a 4.48 shuttle and a 33.2-inch vertical leap. Out of high school, Billingsley was listed at 216 pounds, so he was probably somewhere around that weight when he posted that strong 40 time for his size.

On film, Billingsley backs up those testing numbers with his play speed — he doesn’t quite have the agility or the ball skills of former Texas standout LIl’Jordan Humphrey, but he does have a similar build and better straight-line speed.

Sarkisian sometimes used Billingsley in a similar manner, split out as a receiver in the slot to force mismatches against slower linebackers or smaller defensive backs. In those situations, Billingsley flashed an ability to translate his athleticism into sharp route running.

On one play against LSU in 2020, Billingsley came across the formation from his H-back position on a 4th and 1 as if he was going to execute a block against the end man on the line of scrimmage. Instead, the play was a run-pass option with Billingsley targeted in the flat, where he showed his body control to seamlessly flip his hips and explode upfield.

In that game, Billingsley also caught a touchdown pass on a deep crossing route against zone coverage and then beat man coverage from fifth-round NFL draft pick Jamien Sherwood against Auburn for a touchdown on a similar route concept. In fact, Billingsley’s touchdown catch against Notre Dame came on a deep crossing route, too — it’s a route he clearly runs well and it works against multiple defensive looks.

With Cade Brewer exhausting his eligibility and Jared Wiley transferring to TCU, Billingsley fills a need for Texas, providing Sarkisian with a proven tight end who may have some untapped upside left in the passing game. Landing Billingsley doesn’t reduce the need to add a wide receiver to complement Xavier Worthy, but it does providing another receiving option for whomever wins the starting quarterback job at Texas.

But the big question mark with Billingsley is whether he can provide any value in the run game. If he does, it will come as an H-back — he might weigh less than his listed 230 pounds — putting pressure on Gunnar Helm and Ja’Tavion Sanders to emerge as viable in-line blockers, an area where Wiley struggled with consistency in 2021.

Even if Billingsley is only a situational threat in the passing game, Sarkisian’s willingness to substitute and take advantage of his strengths stands in sharp contrast to the multi-faceted demands that former head coach Tom Herman regularly put on his tight ends — Billingsley doesn’t have to do it all to be effective and his last two seasons provide a clear floor for what he can accomplish at Texas in what should be a bigger role.

Even if Billingsley only matches his previous production at Alabama, he’ll have the most productive season in receiving yards for a Texas tight end since Jermichael Finley in 2007.