When last we saw O.J. Howard in game action, it was in the most important game of the year and he was having the game of his life. In Glendale, Ariz., against Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game, the 6-6, 242-pound Alabama tight end hauled in passes of 53 and 51 yards for touchdowns and one for 63 yards to set up another TD in the Crimson Tide’s 45-40 win.
Following the game, Howard was selected as Offensive Player of the Game for his five receptions for 208 yards. And the day after that, Alabama Coach Nick Saban was giving a lecture to the media – but with upcoming senior Howard and upcoming senior Eddie Jackson, who was Defensive Player of the Game, sitting beside the coach – on the value of returning for a final year of college.
Both made the decision to return, and as the Crimson Tide was beginning spring practice, Saban said it was important to have Howard staying for his final year of college.
"I think O.J. is an outstanding player,” Saban said. “I think there are things that he knows he can improve on as a player and there are things we can improve on to utilize him better on a more consistent basis, which we certainly plan on doing. I think it's going to work out great for him and work out great for us that he made the decision that he made. We're excited about it and looking forward to him being someone who is very productive for us next year."
There is no reason to doubt that Howard will be more used and more productive in 2016, but there hasn’t been evidence in the statistics released from Alabama’s first two scrimmages of spring practice. Howard’s name has not shown up with “Receiving Leaders.”
In addition to his big game against Clemson, Howard also had three receptions for 59 yards in the Cotton Bowl semifinal win over Michigan State. In those two playoff games, the Prattville native had 8 receptions for 267 yards and 2 touchdowns. In Bama’s other 13 games Howard had 30 receptions for 335 yards and 0 TDs.
Prior to last season, Howard had 14 receptions for 269 yards and 2 touchdowns as a freshman in 2013 and 17 catches for 260 yards and 0 TDs as a sophomore.
And prior to the national championship game performance, Howard would have been considered only mildly as likely to forego his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL draft. But after his game in the desert, that became a possibility.
“We talked about it, Howard said. “My family sat down and talked about it. It was kind of a decision where I thought I have so much left on the table in college. How I can mature on and off the field. It really wasn’t a hard decision at the end of the day.”
Contrary to what one might expect, Howard said that Saban did not put a hard pitch on Howard to stay in school. The Tide coach gave Howard the facts and then let Howard make the decision. But, Howard said, Saban liked the decision.
“He said, ‘I’m excited. I’m glad you stayed,’” Howard reported.
Howard claims that he has put his championship game performance in the rear mirror and is looking to the 2016 season, his last at Alabama. He said his goal this spring is “to work and improve and get better. Hopefully, we can do bigger things in the future.”
As for where that improvement might come, Howard said, “Route running. You can always get better in blocking. You can never be too good of a blocker. Just be dominant. That’s really what I’m trying to do.”
The tight end did say that his performance in the championship game helped his confidence. “I’m a confident person, but that definitely helped a lot,” he said.
He also hopes that it means he’ll have an expanded role in the passing game this season. “Whenever I have the opportunity to help the team win games, it’s a good feeling, so I’m excited about it,” he said.
Howard also said working with new quarterbacks is not a problem. After all, he’s had a different quarterback every season – AJ McCarron as a freshman, Blake Sims as a sophomore, and Jake Coker last season.
This spring, Howard said, the quarterback play has been good. “Guys have made smart decisions,” he said. “They put the ball in places to allow receivers to make plays.”
This weekend the quarterbacks and O.J. Howard will be on public display as Alabama concludes spring practice with the A-Day Game at 2 p.m. CDT in Bryant-Denny Stadium. There is no charge for admission and ESPN will televise the intrasquad game