- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's note: From now until the start of spring camp on March 16, TideNation will count down the 12 most intriguing players to watch on the Alabama football roster. Today we look at tight end/H-back O.J. Howard.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- By now it's no secret that Alabama struggled to gain offensive production from its tight end and H-backs last season. It was a historically low output by Nick Saban's standards, the fewest receptions from the position in five seasons.
The truth is Saban hasn't had a dynamic pass-catcher at Alabama who can also put his hand on the ground and block. Colin Peek, Brad Smelley and Michael Williams performed ably, but not spectacularly. They simply didn't impact the game in the way some more athletic, more talented players can. Jacob Hester was the last playmaking H-back Saban coached, and that was several years ago at LSU. Chris Baker was the last tight end he coached who made much noise at the position, and that was a lifetime ago at Michigan State.
Which brings us to Alabama freshman O.J. Howard, who may be the latest and best hope the Crimson Tide has at capturing lightning in a bottle at the position. The four-star prospect is easily the most high-profile player Saban has signed at the position while at UA. Howard was the No. 2-ranked tight end in the country, according to ESPN, and a top-50 overall prospect in this year's class. Despite missing four weeks of his senior season, he racked up 854 total yards and 12 touchdowns. When you watch his tape -- and there's plenty of it -- it's easy to see why college coaches were tripping over themselves to get to Prattville, Ala., to see him play.
Now that he's on campus in Tuscaloosa as an early enrollee, it's time to see what he can do in the SEC. Because for as good as his tape was and as good as his numbers were, most of it was gained against some rather mediocre competition at the private school level. Unlike some of his teammates, he wasn't facing D-I prospects on a weekly basis. Howard, at 6-foot-6 and 235 pounds, was big enough to play any spot on the field at that level. The fact that he played tight end and forced slower linebackers to cover him was almost unfair.
The same, though, might wind up being true at the college level. His blend of size, speed and athleticism is rare. He's too big for a defensive back to cover yet too quick for a linebacker to keep up with. He could stand to add a few pounds to his frame, but judging by his appearance at a walkthrough of the new $9-million gym a few weeks ago, it looks like he already has.
Coaches love what Howard brings to the table as an offensive weapon. Early indications are that he'll start out playing H-back until he's big enough to put a hand on the ground and line up at tight end. With Brent Calloway no longer with the team and Jalston Fowler a question mark coming back from major knee surgery, the door is open for Howard to make an impact right away.
For as dynamic as Alabama's offense was a season ago, with Howard it could become that much more dangerous. With a veteran quarterback, an explosive tailback and a number of talented receivers on the roster, the thought of adding another weapon at tight end is intriguing. There are, after all, only so many receivers a defense can cover.
NFL fans saw it last season with the Atlanta Falcons. Defenses had trouble accounting for two All-Pro wide receivers and a future Hall of Fame tight end. Which brings us to the player Howard hopes to develop into some day.
"Tony Gonzalez. I want to be just like him," Howard said at a signing day news conference. "And Vernon Davis with speed. Tony Gonzalez is a class act and a veteran that will be in the Hall of Fame one day. He's still doing the things right and I have to respect him."
1dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough