O.J. Says Offense 'Tight End Friendly'

O.J. Howard came to Alabama as a receiving mismatch for most opposing defenses. He hopes to get even better in that area, but it could be that the most important thing he can do is become at least a match for opponents when he's a blocking tight end.

It was not a surprise that O.J. Howard played a big role for Alabama as a freshman last year. After all, he had been ranked the nation's number one tight end prospect, even though he came from relatively unknown Autauga Academy in Prattville. Howard started five games and was a regular in the Bama offense, finishing the season with 14 catches for 1269 yards (19.2 yards per catch) and two touchdowns.

Although a little smaller than some Bama tight ends at 6-6 and 241 pounds, Howard has excellent speed. That could be just what new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin wants. Howard believes that Kiffin wants to get players in space. "We have a lot of speed on the offensive side of the ball," Howard said. "It's going to really help our athletic ability and show it off for us."

Howard thinks the tight ends as a group can be more involved in the offense. "The offense is tight end friendly," he said. "He's got some plays in there for us to get the ball in space. Right now we want everybody to stay healthy. That's the big thing. We're doing good. We're blocking. We all get along. We all know our role. There's nothing we can really work on. Just play hard and stay healthy."

This is Howard's second spring. He was an early enrollee last year. The difference this spring, he said, is that he is playing faster. He said, "It seemed like last year I was a new guy. I was kind of like not playing fast because I didn't really know what to do yet. Right now I know what to do. If you know what to do, you're going to play really fast and it makes your game a lot easier."

Even though he was more alternate than starter last year, he said he didn't feel underutilized. "I was just coming in," he said. "I didn't know how to block as well as I'm learning to block now. I played my role and I did what the team needed.

"I didn't come thinking I was going to be the man. It's a team sport, so everybody's going to play their role on the team. I figured that."

He was one of several outstanding newcomers last year, including his friend tailback Derrick Henry. He said the two of them talk about taking the next step "all the time. We always push each other, what we both need to work on to get better. 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."

Howard's freshman "flash" came against LSU when he took a pass over the middle and went 52 yards for a touchdown to give Bama a 10-7 lead en route to a 38-17 win over the Tigers.

"Almost everyone refers to that one, because I got to show off my speed a little bit," Howard said. "Everybody always talks about it."

Howard was split wide on the play. He said, "In high school I played receiver a lot so I'm pretty comfortable playing out wide. It's easy for me to get a release sometimes outside because I kind of look a little quick, so I like it a lot.

"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."

And for anyone wondering about sportsmanship in Southeastern Conference football, Howard revealed a surprise. He said LSU players gave him compliments. "They were like, 'Good play.' They were still shocked. They were like, 'Good job, man.' And that was from our rivals.

"It was exciting for me also."

Now he wants people to be excited about that other important tight end skill: blocking.

"I've been working on that every day with Coach (Bobby) Williams," Howard said. "Every day I'm getting better. (Fellow tight end) Brian Vogler is a really good blocker, so I learn some things from him, too. And when Brandon Greene first moved to tight end with us, he was a big guy who could really block. He had been an offensive lineman, so he knew how to block and taught me some things. And I taught him some things about running routes."

Howard was not a high school blocker. "I was more of a receiver, defensive end, quarterback; so not much blocking."

But when he got to Alabama practice, the emphasis on blocking was "no big shock. I knew I was going to learn to block. We were a run-first team, so blocking was a big thing here."

He said blocking is more technique than size and strength. "A lot of those D-linemen are bigger than me," he said. "If you get your hands inside first, most of the time you're going to win. So it's really technique.

LSU followers likely haven't been reading this article, and if they did they would be even more depressed. Howard was asked what young players might be breakout surprises in the A-Day Game on April 19. He looked no further than the Monroe, La., trio.

"A lot of guys have really been stepping up, playing really good," he said. I think (wide receiver) Cam Sims has been doing really well. Cameron Robinson at left tackle; those two guys have been doing really well. And other guys, like (safety) Hootie Jones on the defensive side of the ball, he's been doing really good. I go up against him a lot. Those three guys, I think, will really stand out."

As for going against Hootie Jones, Howard said, "He's big. He's not normal for his position. He gives me great competition every time we go up against other. He's making me better. He says I'm making him better, so I like playing against him."

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