It’s always interesting at Southeastern Conference Football Media Days to ask the Alabama veterans in attendance to assess which new players have stood out in summer skeleton drills and workouts. That was the case this week in suburban Birmingham.
Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen mentioned freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, freshman offensive tackle Jonah Williams, and freshman defensive tackle Raekwon Davis. Allen added that “mental toughness is something I look for” in a quarterback. Apparently, Hurts has it.
Defensive back Eddie Jackson mentioned freshman defensive backs Shyheim Carter and Aaron “A-Rob” Robinson, along with transfer wide receiver Gehrig Dieter. There have been multiple good reports all summer on Carter’s progress in drills, and Jackson said the youngster is already learning the corner, safety and star positions.
Meanwhile, tight end O.J. Howard also mentioned Carter, along with fellow position players Miller Forristall and Irv Smith and freshman receiver Trevon Diggs.
Howard went into more detail when asked about the quarterback competition between Hurts, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, and Blake Barnett, but didn’t name a favorite. “I think each quarterback is doing a great job right now,” he said. “They’re running the plays. They’re being great leaders. There’s not one guy that stands out more than the other.” (Bama players are well-coached on such topics.)
In 2016 Alabama will have a new starter behind center for a third straight season. "We are used to it by now,” Howard said. “We are going to do the same thing we did the last two years. When it comes to fall camp, that’s when we will be able to tell who our starting quarterback will be.”
Howard, who was selected for the preseason All-SEC first team by media, was complimented by Nick Saban on how his trench work has gotten better each of his three seasons at The Capstone. “I think O.J. has improved and developed as a blocker each and every year,” the coach said. “Being an athletic guy, sort of a taller, thin-bodied type guy, that has been a challenge for him. He has worked so hard at (blocking), and improved so dramatically at being an effective blocker, and I thought last year was his best year in that.”
A recent line coaching staff shakeup has resulted in the wily veteran learning some new tricks. “Coach (Mario) Cristobal is a great coach,” Howard said of his new mentor who now coaches Tide tackles and tight ends. “When he coached the o-line, he brought enthusiasm. Our tight ends are going to be second to none. He’s teaching us great techniques in the off-season. (Blocking) is all about keeping your hands in and your feet in position.
“My sophomore year, I didn’t do a lot of blocking in the off-season, so that’s something I worked on with my coaches (like former tight end mentor Bobby Williams). For my junior year, we worked more on the running game. This season, I’m continuing to be a tight end. The position has been about progression.”
As such, Howard hopes to be a bigger part of the Tide offensive game plan this fall, as he was in the post-season during last year’s title run. Saban has similar plans for the 6-foot-6 senior.
“(Howard) is a fabulous receiver,” Saban said. “He’s got great hands. He’s got speed to stretch the field. He can make the tough catch. He can separate from man-to-man (coverage). He has been an effective receiver, one that we probably need to use more, because of his ability to make plays.
“O.J. has been a very unselfish guy in terms of the things he’s done and how he’s contributed to our team. He’s contributed to our team in a fantastic way. It doesn’t always get recognized, because it seems like it’s always recognized on how many big plays you make or how many passes you catch. He had several big games for us.”
Said Howard: “This season I’m looking forward to Coach Kiffin (Alabama Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin) dialing up plays (for the tight end). I think we are going to be able to get a lot of new (no-huddle) formations and plays. When Coach Kiffin got here, I kind of knew that was going to happen for us. It’s been great for us; it’s been a new look for us.”
Howard said Crimson Tide fans need not worry about their team being complacent after last year’s title run. “I think our team knows that’s last year,” he said. “This team hasn’t done anything yet. We’re a new team. We have to establish ourselves. Everyone is working hard, and no one is complacent. New players have bought into ‘The Process’ already. The older guys are doing the right things. I think we’ll be fine this season.”
One reason Howard feels that way? Nick Saban and his coaching staff. “With us being competitors and being close as a team, we know what it takes,” Howard said. “Coaches will be there to coach us up, and to give us the speeches that we need. If you don’t want to win, I don’t think you’re a competitor. Coach (Saban) doesn’t have to say much to keep us motivated.”
Howard had 38 catches on the season last year for 602 yards for a team-high 15.8 yards per catch average. He was effective, as 24 of his catches converted first downs for the Tide with nine of 20 yards or more. His breakout performance came in the title game win over Clemson, as Howard earned Offensive MVP honors for his career day against the Tigers. He finished with five catches for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns, and all five catches converted first downs while going for at least 15 yards. Howard hauled in a career-long 63 yard reception before being pushed out of bounds late in the fourth quarter, and his 208 yards were the most in a bowl game by any single player in Alabama history and was the most by any player in a national championship game.