Alabama Football: Why O.J. Howard Will Be Team's X-Factor in 2014

Sanjay KirpalaniNational Recruiting AnalystJuly 3, 2014

TUSCALOOSA, AL - NOVEMBER 09:  O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs 52 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter against the LSU Tigers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on November 9, 2013 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On a team loaded with freakish talents at the skill positions, sophomore tight end O.J. Howard might be the key for Alabama’s chances to make it into the inaugural College Football Playoff this fall.

Sure, Nick Saban is used to having freakish running backs and wide receivers—and this year will be no different with the likes of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Amari Cooper leading a loaded group of skill talent.

However, since his arrival in Tuscaloosa seven years ago, he’s never had a talent like Howard at the tight end spot.

Late last season, Saban commented on just how bright the former 5-star recruit’s future appears to be.

"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," Saban told Andrew Gribble of "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."

After showing glimpses of his potential by snaring 14 passes for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns as a true freshman, Howard is on the verge of breaking out in 2014, as detailed by’s Chase Goodbread.

At 6’6”, 237 pounds and blessed with breakaway speed, Howard is a valued weapon who can help create a smooth transition for the new parts involved with the offense.

Specifically, new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and projected starting quarterback Jacob Coker will love the spoils that come with having a game-breaking talent like Howard at tight end.

He’s versatile enough to be flexed out wide as a receiver in certain sets, and he’s quick and physical enough to exploit mismatches against linebackers or safeties in the middle of the field.

With teams having to respect the Tide’s bruising running game, and be mindful of a receiving unit that could be the deepest segment of pass-catchers fielded by the Tide in Saban’s tenure, Howard brings a new dimension that gives defenses an almost impossible task in stopping the Tide.

Another area where Howard could make a big difference is in the red zone. Considering Alabama converted only four touchdowns out of 10 combined red zone trips in its last two games—both of which were losses—Howard’s ability to create mismatches will benefit Kiffin and his troops greatly in 2014.

The 2014 edition of the Tide are loaded for another national title run. Similar to their recent title teams, familiar elements such as a physical defense and an unrivaled complement of talented rushers are present.

However, after years of tight ends being relegated as sixth offensive linemen in its offense, Howard’s continued development may just be the difference in getting Alabama back to college football’s mountaintop.