TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One can’t have a discussion about University of Alabama sophomore tight end O.J. Howard without mentioning the play.
It was against rival LSU last season, and host Alabama was down 7-3 in the second quarter. The then-freshman was the lone player to line up wide right, with three wide receivers all on the left side. After catching the slant pass in stride he kept going, outracing all of the defensive backs to the end zone for a momentum-changing 52-yard touchdown.
“Everybody always refers back to that one, because I got to show off my speed a little bit,” Howard said.
“I think what happened was I caught the ball and I saw a seam and I was like, 'I'm running full-speed no matter what,' and those guys didn't think I was going to be that fast because I was a tight end. They were like jogging and when they tried to speed up it was too late, so I kind of shocked them a little bit.”
He kind of shocked a lot of fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium as well, who also weren’t necessarily used to seeing something so big (6’6”, 240 pounds) move so fast. While the phrase “He gone!” can be heard in these parts, long touchdowns by tight ends have been anything but commonplace.
It only added to the excitement about Howard, who hopes to become sort of a cross between Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots and former North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, considered by many to be the best tight end available in this year’s NFL draft.
"To have a tight end like him that is certainly a threat in the passing game, either vertically, horizontally or play-action passes, is really a tremendous asset for us,” Nick Saban said about Howard after Alabama went on to beat LSU, 38-17. "He's really matured a lot as a player and is becoming a better blocker and a good all-around player.
"I think that guy's going to be an outstanding tight end for us."
Nevertheless, Alabama didn’t throw to the tight ends as much under Doug Nussmeier as it did with previous offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, and last year the Crimson Tide had their worst receiving production at the position since Saban arrived in 2007.
Even with his 52-yard touchdown, Howard still only had 14 receptions for 269 yards.
|Receptions by Alabama tight ends|
|Year||Catches||Yards||Percent of all receptions|
|University of Alabama statistics|
During the previous six seasons, the leading receiver among tight ends had at minimum 24, Michael Williams in 2012 just edging out Preston’s Dial’s 25 in 2010.
Yes, even though Williams was primarily known as a blocking tight end, he had 10 more receptions the previous season despite Howard averaging 19.2 yards per reception and 11.4 yards after the catch. Additionally, Brad Smelley’s longest reception when he played for the Crimson Tide was 37 yards (which occurred during his freshman season), and Colin Peek’s was 33 yards.
Howard also only had one reception in the red zone, for his other touchdown, which was 17 yards.
Overall, all of the tight ends combined made just 27 catches for 380 yards, which works out to 9.04 percent of all Crimson Tide receptions. That figure doesn’t include Jalston Fowler, who was more of a running back and fullback but will line up more as a receiving tight end this season in the position Alabama calls H-back. Even with his statistics factored in, the tight ends still would have had only 34 receptions for 385 yards.
That's expected to change under new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin since there are few, if any, linebackers in college football fast enough to cover Howard. It's an obvious mismatch to be exploited.
While Saban—who has coached an All-American player at every position except punter and tight end—covets more explosive plays, Howard himself calls the revamped offense “tight-end friendly.”
“It's like getting our athletes in space and showing off our ability,” he described. “We have a lot of speed on the offensive side of the ball. It's going to really help our athletic ability and show it off for us.”
Meanwhile, Howard has become more accustomed to the collegiate game and is playing with a lot more confidence this spring. His route-running has improved, he doesn’t second-guess himself nearly as a much and, perhaps most importantly, he’s been working on the part of his game he didn’t have to do much of in high school, blocking.
Obviously Howard already had the receiving and running parts down, as LSU learned the hard way last October.
“It was like a big change in the game, and then everybody was like, 'Oh man, who was that guy? He was fast,'” Howard recalled.
“It was exciting for me too.”
Christopher Walsh is the lead Alabama football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.