MOBILE, Ala. — How did the Alabama Crimson Tide not find a way to use tight end O.J. Howard more often? Even he doesn’t know.
“I have no idea, honestly man,” Howard said at the Senior Bowl. “It was kind of a question mark my whole career about that, but I’ve never been able to give an answer to this day.”
Howard came to Alabama as the top tight end recruit in the nation and a consensus five-star prospect, but finished his career with just seven touchdown receptions. His only two games with more than 100 receiving yards were his pair of national championship performances against Clemson.
“I can be a guy like that every game,” Howard said. “Being able to make those plays in big moments is huge, but I feel like I’m the type of player who can do that consistently.
“It was a little bit that the game plan was different and a little bit just being able to make plays -- in the right place at the right time and having the opportunities. I was thankful for those games, I got the opportunity to show off the ability that I have in those last two games on a big stage.”
In the two games against Clemson, Howard racked up nine receptions, 314 receiving yards and three touchdowns. In his other 55 games, Howard had just four touchdowns and averaged 2.1 receptions and 25.1 yards.
The reality is that tight end hasn’t been a position used much during Nick Saban’s era of dominance as head coach of the Crimson Tide. Howard’s 33 receptions in 2015 were the most ever for a tight end during Saban’s time at Alabama, and he topped that number with 45 receptions in 2016.
"O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long," Saban said last January after the Crimson Tide beat Clemson, 45-40. "Sometimes he was open and we didn't get him the ball. But I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he's capable of and what he can do. I would say it's bad coaching on my part that he didn't have the opportunity to do that all year long."
Yet, Howard had even fewer receiving yards as a senior.
“[NFL scouts] ask me sometimes how did I stay focused and I told them that I’m the type of person if I get so disappointed and frustrated about that, it shows on the field,” Howard said. “So I had to stay focused and do what’s best for myself and my future. That’s how I stayed positive through the process.”
On the practice field in Mobile, Howard has looked like every bit like the player who shined on the national championship stage.
Just too easy for O.J. Howard pic.twitter.com/gqCqAdHzny— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) January 25, 2017
“All of these guys are really good, but one guy who kind of shocked me was O.J. Howard,” South Team quarterback Antonio Pipkin of Division II Tiffin University said. “I threw him a vertical today on a touchdown and he really went to go get it. I didn’t think he was going to get to it, but he picked up speed to get there and I was shocked to see a tight end go that fast.”
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock said that he believes Howard could be the first player from the Senior Bowl to go off the board in the 2017 NFL Draft.
“You can see he's really worked on his blocking and has improved in that area,” Mayock said, via NFL.com. “He has a perfect combination of height, weight, speed, toughness, and athletic ability. The comparison I have for him is Greg Olsen. If you have a chance to draft a Greg Olsen, you go get him.”
Why Alabama seemingly had no use of a Greg Olsen-type tight end is a question with no good answer. But Howard’s ready to put up numbers in the NFL that he never had the chance to in college.