Alabama Football: Is O.J. Howard the Tide's Next Offensive Weapon?

Marc TorrenceAlabama Lead WriterSeptember 22, 2013

Sep 14, 2013; College Station, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard (88) runs with a catch as he is tackled by Texas A&M Aggies defensive back Clay Honeycutt (25) and defensive back Deshazor Everett (29) during the second half at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports
Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — During Saturday's game against Colorado State, Aaron Suttles of The Tuscaloosa News posed an interesting question:

With my limited knowledge of Alabama football history (I've only been following the team since 2009, when I decided to go to school there), nobody immediately jumped to my mind.

In the Nick Saban era, Alabama tight ends have mostly fit a typical mold: solid blocker, dependable hands, but not very effective in the open field or with the ball in their hands.

Brad Smelley or Nick Walker were probably the most athletic tight ends Saban has had at Alabama. Michael Williams was as sure of a blocker as they come, but couldn't do much after the catch.

But now, in O.J. Howard, Saban has the most dangerous tight end he's ever had at Alabama.

The 6-foot-6, 237-pound, Prattville, Ala., native wasted no time getting on the field in the season-opener against Virginia Tech. Howard was targeted once, but saw steady playing time on running downs, too. His pass-blocking was a point of concern heading into the season, but he put those questions to rest early.

Against Texas A&M, Howard showed just how dangerous he can be.

Sep 14, 2013; College Station, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back T.J. Yeldon (4) runs with the ball against Texas A&M Aggies safety Howard Matthews (31) in the second quarter at Kyle Field. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

He caught three passes for 68 yards, many of which came after the catch. And again, Howard was in on rushing downs, when Alabama featured two- and three-tight end sets.

He continued his pace last week, with three more catches for 38 yards.

Currently, Howard is Alabama's third-leading receiver with six catches for 106 yards. He's averaging 17.7 yards per catch.

"He is tough, and he will try and get after you," Saban said of Howard last week. "His athleticism is a real asset to the passing game. He gives us another threat out there."

Howard is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses, as if Alabama needed one more of those.

His speed and athleticism forces defenses to account for him in the passing game, but his size allows him to be a threat blocking in the run game, too.

If you defend him with a linebacker, he'll run right by you. If you bring in an extra defensive back, Alabama can run it down your throat.

"There were a couple of times where if they called my number, and it was a deep ball, I just wanted to be like, ‘Put O.J. in now,’" tight end Brian Vogler said. "Having him gain more confidence really helps. A game like [Texas A&M] can really help with his confidence.

With Howard in the lineup, Alabama's options on offense increase drastically. His dynamic skill set makes him one of the most diverse players on the Crimson Tide's roster. And as a freshman, he's only going to get better.

Alabama's deep and talented stable of running backs and receivers already make Alabama's offenses one of the most effective in the country.

But in Howard, the Crimson Tide have found yet another weapon.