Nobody would have blamed Alabama tight end O.J. Howard if he called it a career after the College Football Playoff championship game and declared for the NFL.
Howard made five catches, including a pair of long touchdowns, for 208 yards in the Crimson Tide’s title-clinching 45-40 win against Clemson on Jan. 11.
“People recognize who I am a little bit, so that’s been different,” Howard said. “It definitely has helped a little bit as far as more notoriety.”
Howard could have made a significant amount of money as an early-round draft pick, but he had other ambitions.
Howard wanted to graduate college first, which he did in May, and also had unrealized on-field goals despite the national title — “becoming a more-polished route runner and improving in the run game a little bit more,” he said.
Through two seasons at Alabama, Howard, a former five-star recruit, had only totaled 31 catches for 529 yards with two touchdowns.
He racked up 38 receptions for 602 yards with two touchdowns last season buoyed by that record-setting performance on college football’s biggest stage.
But that’s not what stood out to Tide coach Nick Saban about Howard’s junior season.
“O.J. has improved and developed as a blocker each and every year, which — being an athletic guy, sort of a taller, thin-bodied type guy — that has been a challenge for him,” Saban said. “But he has worked so hard at that and improved dramatically at that to be a very effective blocker. I thought last year was his best year in that.”
Howard is expected to have a big senior season in Alabama’s up-tempo, no-huddle offense led by offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, which is curious given Saban’s previous criticism of such schemes.
“Lane was really a no-huddle guy,” Saban said. “That was something we did philosophically because of the issues that it created for us defensively. … For us not to use those plays is a disadvantage for us. Even though we do not philosophically agree that this is the way football was meant to be played or should be played, if it creates issues for the other team and for the defense … then we need to use those things.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns for the Tide on offense.
Alabama doesn’t return an experienced tailback as sophomores Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough combined for only 64 carries, 261 yards and two touchdowns last season.
“I’m out there with those guys every day in the summertime, and I see the way that they’re progressing,” Howard said. “I see the leadership role that they’re taking in coaching up the younger guys that just came in at running back. I think they’ll be fine.”