Alabama's O.J. Howard Finally Meets Potential, Has NFL Draft Scouts Salivating

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 12, 2016

Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Alabama TE O.J. HowardKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

All eyes were on Alabama running back and 2015 Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry in the College Football Playoff National Championship against Clemson on Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, and unfortunately for Henry, that included the eyes of the Clemson front seven.

Sure, he finished with 158 yards on 36 carries, but 50 of those yards came on a first-quarter touchdown run in Alabama's 45-40 win over the top-ranked Tigers.

In the second half, while the top two teams in the country were busy trading body blow after body blow like two heavyweight fighters going toe-to-toe for the belt, Henry found himself bottled up by the fast, physical and deep Clemson defense.

Somebody had to come through, and it was Tuscaloosa's version of a unicorn—tight end O.J. Howard.

Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Alabama TE O.J. HowardKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The junior caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns for the Crimson Tide, etching his name in stone as one of the most surprising stars in title-game history after not realizing his potential for the majority of his career.

His 53-yard touchdown gave Alabama a 21-14 lead after the extra point coming out of halftime, and his 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown broke a tie in the fourth quarter after head coach Nick Saban stunned Clemson with an onside kick. It was the play that sent the Crimson Tide's momentum into overdrive when they needed it the most.

As Ben Jones of TideSports.com noted on Twitter, Saban places the blame on himself for not getting Howard more involved in the game plan over his first three seasons with the program:

Even in a critical spot on 2nd-and-long late in the fourth quarter with Alabama up one score, quarterback Jake Coker found Howard for a 63-yard catch-and-run down to the Clemson 14-yard line that set up Henry's third touchdown, which iced the game.

The 6'6", 242-pound native of Prattville, Alabama, came to town as one of the 5-star studs of the 2013 recruiting class, but he never really materialized into the weapon he was touted to be.

"Everything I've heard is that he was kind of lazy," Bleacher Report NFL draft analyst Matt Miller said. "Some of it, too, was because of the way the scheme was designed; they're going to run the ball so much, and that is going to come into play. A lot of the focus on the edge was with [Calvin] Ridley and those guys."

Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Alabama TE O.J. HowardDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

Now, things have changed quite a bit for Howard.

His performance, which earned him offensive MVP honors, has scouts at the next level drooling based on his potential, size, running capacity, hands and ability to play his best against top competition.

"It moves him up, there's no way around it," Miller said. "I always tell people that you want 'big plus big,' and that's what tonight was. You're going against a Clemson secondary in which every one of those guys is going to play in the NFL, and some of those guys are going to be early draft picks."

It took him long enough.

Howard entered the title game with just two career touchdown catches—both during the 2013 season394 receiving yards during the 2015 season and the "recruiting bust" label.

"Anybody who follows recruiting knows who O.J. Howard is and that he's a freak of an athlete, but he had never had those numbers until tonight," Miller said. "You got an idea of what he can do. I always say to scout traits over production. Tonight you got to see those two things come together."

GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  O.J. Howard #88 of the Alabama Crimson Tide scores a 51 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Clemson Tigers during the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on Jan
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Howard has a decision to make after his masterful performance. His career might have been slow to get started, but his junior year ended on the highest of high notes.

Will he strike while the iron is hot and make the jump to the next level?

He was more of a mystery than a monster in college, but that mystery was solved in the biggest game of the season.

Better late than never.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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