In an offense that's loaded with talent at running back and wide receiver, Alabama's biggest weapon might be one that isn't playing one of those glamour positions.
Tight end O.J. Howard.
The rising sophomore for the Crimson Tide caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns last season, including a 52-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter against LSU last year.
That wasn't good enough to earn freshman All-SEC honors, as Arkansas freshman Hunter Henry (28 rec., 409 yds., four TDs) brought home those honors.
For Howard, though, the best is yet to come.
The 6'6", 237-pounder from Prattville, Alabama, has great hands, runs like a deer and presents matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators who have to deal with weapons in the backfield and outside at receiver in Alabama's offense.
He and fellow sophomore running back Derrick Henry are being counted on to provide depth and versatility for new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin's offense, and know that they need to be more consistent this year, according to B/R's Christopher Walsh.
“We always push each other, what we both need to work on to get better,” Howard said. “We both had our flashes, but this year we can become an all-around player at both our positions and be consistent with our play.”
He'll get his chance to shine this year.
New quarterback Jacob Coker is still very much a mystery, and a quarterback's best friend is a reliable safety valve. Howard can be that safety valve.
He's also playing in an offense for a coach who loves to use the tight end.
Xavier Grimble had 10 catches for 127 yards and a touchdown in Kiffin's five games as USC's head coach last season before Kiffin was let go after a loss to Arizona State. Over the last five years coaching in college, a tight end on Kiffin's team has finished among his team's top three receivers three times, and Fred Davis and Dominique Byrd each enjoyed solid careers as tight ends under Kiffin when he was an assistant at USC in the mid-2000s.
Texas Tech's Jace Amaro, North Carolina's Eric Ebron and Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins made appearances on the AP All-American team at tight end last year. Amaro topped 1,000 yards, and Ebron was on the cusp, but Seferian-Jenkins only had 36 catches for 450 yards and eight touchdowns.
All three of those players are gone, and Howard's ability to create mismatches and become a threat in the red zone make him a perfect candidate to fill their shoes.
"I think he needs to continue to improve in some of those areas because he’s a great pass-receiver, but we continue to work with him and try to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well," Saban said.
Will TE O.J. Howard be an All-American in 2014?
He'll join senior Brian Vogler as the two top tight end targets for the Crimson Tide, with Vogler more of a blocking threat and Howard's upside being as a receiver in the passing game.
Howard has the physical ability to be the next big superstar tight end in college football, a host of weapons around him to occupy the attention of defenders and create mismatches and a coach in Kiffin who knows how to make those mismatches happen.
In an offense loaded with talent, Howard could emerge as not only one of its biggest weapons but one of the biggest weapons in all of college football.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report.