Alabama TE O.J. Howard has been underutilized most of his career. But the Crimson Tide veteran could be integral to the team’s national title aspirations.
Throw out the numbers when it comes to O.J. Howard, because they don’t come anywhere close to doing him justice.
If Clemson is going to beat Alabama and claim its first national championship since 1981, Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables must always keep an eye on the Alabama tight end.
Against Clemson in last year’s College Football Playoff national title game, Howard burned the Tigers, recording 208 receiving yards—the most in a bowl game for any Alabama player in school history—and two touchdowns in the Crimson Tide’s 45-40 win. Without Howard and a well-timed onside kick, ‘Bama would not have defeated Deshaun Watson and Co. While that was Howard’s best game at ‘Bama, the next-highest yardage total in his career is 81 receiving yards, which came against Ole Miss in a 2014 loss.
Alabama certainly has had a variety of offensive weapons over the last several seasons, but too often Howard has been underutilized and overlooked. Consider that before those two touchdowns against Clemson, Howard’s last score occurred on Nov. 9, 2013, against LSU. He essentially went two seasons without scoring six points. That’s an incredibly shocking stat for someone so immensely talented.
Despite coming back for a final season, Howard had four games this year in which he notched just one catch. In four other contests, he had just two grabs each. In 14 games, he has found the end zone just twice.
His excellent blocking has been a big aspect of this Crimson Tide offense, but his pass-catching ability should have been utilized more throughout his career. And there’s no better time to rectify that mismanagement than on the big stage that awaits on Monday night as Alabama tries to win its fifth national title in eight seasons.
Much like Lane Kiffin seemed to forget about big, shifty running back Bo Scarbrough for spurts in the Peach Bowl win over Washington, Howard’s freakish athletic ability at the tight end spot—he runs like a wide receiver—has not been fully utilized. It did appear, however, that the Tide wanted to get Howard involved in the game plan early against the Huskies. The first play from scrimmage was a play-action pass intended for the tight end on a crossing route, but Huskies safety Budda Baker read quarterback Jalen Hurts and dropped underneath Howard for a near interception. Howard finished with 4 catches for 44 yards in the game. Anything but electric stuff.
There’s no question that Howard left a lot to be desired as a blocker for a good portion of his career, so he wasn’t leaned on to enhance the Tide’s ground game. But with the help of assistant coach Mario Cristobal, who added coaching tight ends to his duties, that aspect of Howard’s game improved. It has helped him this season, and it will help him when he arrives at the next level.
While one can’t argue with Alabama’s results on the field as a team, a player with Howard’s skill set will be vital to the Tide’s cause against a Clemson defense that looked as nasty as ever in its Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State.
Swinney, Venables and the rest of the Clemson coaching staff are going to give Howard much more attention than he received in last year’s title game, so no one expects him to duplicate his incredible performance from last season’s finale. However, such fixation should open things up more for everyone else on Alabama’s offense. That’s where the improvement of Hurts is vital.
Against U-Dub on New Year’s Eve, Hurts went just 7-of-14 passing for 57 yards. While he didn’t have to do a whole lot for ‘Bama to beat the Huskies, that won’t be the case on Monday night. Add in the offensive coordinator drama that occurred earlier this week, and it’s a ‘Bama offense filled with question marks heading into its biggest game of the season.
Perhaps a new play-caller, though, is exactly what Howard needs as he prepares for a rematch with the Tigers. Steve Sarkisian, who inherited the offense a little earlier than expected when it was announced that Kiffin would immediately leave for FAU, will now run the show. It’s certainly going to be an adjustment, as Sark is essentially going to be a new voice for the unit. However, things become a lot easier when talents such as Howard are put in a position to make plays. Again, it appeared that getting Howard involved early against Washington was part of the game plan, so perhaps we’ll see more of that on Monday night.
If Sark makes a concerted effort to get No. 88 the ball, the Tide’s chances of rolling to another crown will only increase.