This is a big week for Alabama tight end O.J. Howard and his Crimson Tide teammates. “It’s a big week for us,” he said. “We know how important this game is.”
It’s Tennessee Week, always big in the rivalry, usually big in Southeastern Conference play, and this year – with both teams ranked in the nation’s top ten – the big game in the nation.
Alabama (6-0 overall and 3-0 in the SEC) will be at Tennessee (5-1, 2-1 after a double overtime loss last week at No. 6 Texas A&M) at 3:30 p.m. EDT (2:30 central) Saturday. CBS will televise the game.
In addition to it being Big Game week, Howard has been selected as one of 30 finalists for the 2016 Senior CLASS Award. An acronym for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School, the Senior CLASS Award focuses on the total student-athlete and encourages students to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.
Howard said he thinks the Tennessee game is the biggest of the year for Alabama. “We all know how tough Tennessee plays us,” he said. “It’s a very important game to a lot of guys around here. It means a lot to our fans. It’s a rivalry game we take a lot of pride in.”
Howard was particularly impressed by Tennessee’s now famous Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game to defeat Georgia in Athens. Juaun Jennings caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from Joshua Dobbs as time expired for a 34-31 Vols win.
“That was a pretty crazy finish,” Howard said, “but I noticed this about those guys: you have to finish against those guys. They don’t give up. They are a really strong second half team so. I definitely noticed that about them this season.”
Howard, 6-6, 251, has been a four-year starter for the Tide. Although he has exception skills as a receiver, he has not been targeted as often as might be expected. Going into this season he had 69 receptions for 1,131 yards and this year he has 13 catches for 186 yards and one touchdown.
Meanwhile, he has become an excellent blocker. Howard said blocking “just comes down to technique, especially when you are on the line of scrimmage blocking. It’s all about technique, footwork, get your hands inside first and keeping leverage.”
Earlier this year he had a key block as wide receiver ArDarius Stewart scored. Howard said, “I feel like if I’m running for a touchdown, I want him to block the same way, so vice-versa. So I feel like its always better to see someone else score sometimes, being able to help them. During that play I was just blocking to see (Stewart) score a touchdown.”
He said he is not concerned if he is not a frequent target of quarterback Jalen Hurts. “Each route, each play has a concept, so you have to do your job to allow somebody else to get open at times. Every route is not designed to go your way; it depends on what coverage it is. I’ve got to run my route to let the guy behind me get open so they can bite down on me. But you just never know. You’ve got to run your route hard because the one time you may not run it hard the ball comes your way. That’s just how it goes.”
He said the offensive player “pep each other up. We want everybody to make a big play. Everybody blocks hard for each other. We want to see everybody succeed, just do what’s best for our offense. That’s what makes us so successful.”
Howard’s credentials for the CLASS Award include more than just his football ability. In the classroom, Howard has already earned his undergraduate degree as of this past May and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the Sport Business Management program at Alabama. He earned Dean’s List honors in his final semester of undergraduate studies and maintains a 3.0 grade point average.
On the field, Howard has been one of the Tide’s most consistent players and one of the top tight ends in the nation. Heading into the 2016 season, he was chosen to the Mackey, Maxwell, Wuerffel and Lombardi Award preseason watch lists.
Last season, he was named MVP of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game with his record-setting performance in the win over Clemson -- five catches for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns. He also finished his junior season as the team’s leader in yards per catch, averaging 15.8 yards per reception.
To be eligible for the award, a student-athlete must be classified as an NCAA Division I FBS senior and have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition.