Alabama’s O.J. Howard is listed as a tight end on the Crimson Tide roster, but the junior from Prattville is playing that hybrid position, H-Back, rather than the traditional tight end spot on the offensive line next to a tackle.
Howard has been considered a potential superstar since his arrival in Tuscaloosa. He’s got tight end size (6-6, 242) and wide receiver speed, which makes him a tough out for a defense.
In Howard’s first two seasons as a backup tight end, he pulled in 31 receptions for 529 yards and two touchdowns. In neither 2013 nor 2014 did Howard catch a pass in the season-opener. Such was the case for a number of other receivers in Bama games the past few years.
That’s because Amari Cooper was setting records for receptions, yards, and receiving touchdowns in a single game, a season, and for his career. Cooper left Bama following his junior season and was the fourth player taken in the NFL draft last spring. He’ll be playing for the Oakland Raiders this year. Last year Cooper had 124 of Alabama’s 290 pass receptions, 43 per cent of the team total. He averaged 9 per game.
In Saturday’s 35-17 win over Wisconsin in Dallas to open the season last weekend, Howard had three receptions for 37 yards. He was one of nine Bama players who caught passes in the season-opener.
On Saturday, the receptions were divided between Robert Foster (4-50), ArDarius Stewart (4-44), Howard (3-37), Calvin Ridley (3-22), Kenyan Drake (2-48), Richard Mullaney (2-38), Derrick Henry (2-12), Ty Flournoy-Smith (1-17), and Damien Harris (1-(-4).
A longtime adage of football has been that it is important for a quarterback to spread the ball around to various receivers. That’s probably true from a morale standpoint, and also speaks to the difficulty of a defense to have to spread its pass coverage resources. (Of course, all Bama opponents last year knew about Cooper, and it didn’t seem to help them to know that he was the go-to guy.)
O.J. Howard said it was good to get some receptions, but added, “I think our offense, most importantly, did a better job of playing fast.
“We have so many weapons on the offensive side of the ball and you never know who to key in on. We had a lot of guys have catches, and that’s going to make it hard for us to be stoppable this season.”
One of Howard’s receptions went for 21 yards, and looked like it was going to be for more. How much more?
“Six,” said Howard, meaning he thought he should have gone all the way. “I got tangled up. A guy got me by my shoestrings. I’ve got to try to stay up on my meet. I thought I should have scored on that one.”
Alabama Coach Nick Saban said following the game that Howard could get more opportunities. Howard said, “It could happen. That’s every game, though. You always say, ‘I could have had more plays.’ But at the same time, we have so many guys on offense that could get the ball at any time. The most important thing is that when your number is called, you have to make that play. That’s what I focus on.
“We have progressions on certain plays so it may not always come my way. But when it does, I have to make the play.”
Saban had a reasonable explanation of the distribution of the football. He said, “The way the ball gets distributed in the passing game is not, 'All right, we're going to throw it to No. 8 this time.' 'All right, this time we're going to throw it to No. 13.’ And next time we're going to throw it to No. 3.
“You call a play, you don't know what coverage they're going to play and then the quarterback throws the ball to the right guy based on the coverage that they're playing. So one guy could get 10 opportunities totally unscripted and another guy could get two.
“So I'm glad a lot of guys got opportunities to catch balls and make plays because I think that will help them develop and improve their confidence. But you can't really make sure that that happens. You can even call a play and put a guy in a position and say that this play is designed to get the ball to No. 17, and then they take No. 17 away and No. 13 gets it. So we were pleased that a lot of guys were involved, a lot of guys got to catch passes to help improve a part of our team that does not have a lot of experience."
So the important thing for Howard and the other receivers is to be the right guy.