- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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Today we turn our attention to a player who played plenty as a true freshman in 2013, but didn't break out in the way many thought was possible.
TE O.J. Howard
6-foot-6, 237 pounds
Credentials: Decorated left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio said it best when he told reporters late last year that Howard was "something special." Kouandjio added, "He’s showing flashes of things that guys who have been here five years can’t do." Howard, who was the No. 2 tight end in the ESPN 300 in 2013, was billed as a player who could do it all. He's big, as a tight end is supposed to be, but he could run and jump like a wide receiver. In his second career game and on the national stage against Texas A&M, he caught three passes for 68 yards. While he technically only started in five games, he made an impact in most all of them, catching 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns on the season. His average yards per catch (19.2) ranked 25th in the country among receivers who made 10 receptions.
How he fits: For all Howard did as a freshman, there's an argument to be made that he was wildly underutilized by former offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Granted, he was still learning the offense and figuring out how to block SEC-sized defenders, but Howard was nonetheless a headache for even the best defenses given his size and speed. The typical linebacker is too slow to keep up with him, and the typical defensive back is too small to fight for space. Enter new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, who has a history of putting his best weapons on the field at any position. He could easily maneuver Howard from tight end to receiver to H-back, similar to what we've seen in the NFL with players such as the Saints' Jimmy Graham.
Best case/worst case: This is a big year for Howard, and not just because of the opportunities Kiffin might give him. Howard will also have the benefit of breaking in a new quarterback. AJ McCarron was about as good as they come under center, but you know how the saying generally goes: A tight end is an inexperienced quarterback's best friend. Howard has a chance to be that safety blanket and catch a lot of passes from whoever Alabama's next quarterback might be. That said, if Howard doesn't continue progressing as a blocker, he could be seen as a liability and struggle to stay on the field as an every-down player. Don't forget that Brian Vogler is the most established, savvy tight end on the roster. As a rising senior, he'll be hard to keep off the field.
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