- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Down 7-3 early in the second quarter against LSU, Alabama’s offense needed a spark. The No. 1 team in the nation was in need of a big play, and it was seldom-used but talented freshman O.J. Howard who delivered.
The 6-foot-6 tight end split out wide before the snap. He ran a deep slant, caught the pass over the middle and outran the entire defense en route to a 52-yard touchdown.
“I saw a seam, so I was like I’m running full speed no matter what,” Howard said, recalling the play from last fall. “Those guys didn’t think I was going to be that fast because I was a tight end, so they were jogging. When they tried to speed up, it was too late.”
It was the play that highlighted Howard’s freshman year, and if only for a moment, it showed the potential that everybody raved about when the former ESPN 300 star signed with the Crimson Tide in February 2013. That potential was held in check for the most part, though, as he finished the year with just 14 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
Fans blamed the former offensive coordinator for not getting Howard more involved. They pointed fingers at quarterback AJ McCarron who tended to favor the veteran wide receivers on the team. But in the end, it falls back on the freshman.
“Maybe there was some things he didn’t do right,” said O.J.’s father, Kareem Howard. “Maybe he didn’t get open in time. Maybe he was a step off. Maybe he took a step that away and he should’ve went right. That all comes with time and experience, though.”
As Howard enters his second spring with Alabama, there’s a new sense of confidence. He’s no longer scared to make a mistake. He knows what he’s supposed to do, and he knows the expectations that the staff has for him. The stats from the first two scrimmages haven’t been a good reflection, but he believes he’s playing faster this spring.
“Last spring, I came in early,” Howard said. “I was a new guy. I wasn’t playing fast because I didn’t really know what to do yet. Now I know what to do, and when you know what to do, you’re going to play really fast. It makes the game a lot easier.”
Howard recorded three catches for 38 yards in Saturday’s scrimmage, but the key to an expanded role on the team won’t be tracked by how many how catches or yards he has this spring. It’s more about how he improves as a blocker in Alabama’s run-first offense.
“O.J. is a very talented guy,” head coach Nick Saban said. “I think he needs to continue to improve in some areas because he’s a great pass receiver, but we continue to work on trying to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well.”
It’s a part of his game that Howard has worked tirelessly at since arriving in Tuscaloosa. In high school, he was typically the one with the ball in his hands, so blocking was foreign to him. It was something he had to learn on the fly once he got to Alabama.
“I knew when I got here I was going to learn to block,” Howard said. “We were a run-first team, so blocking is a big thing here. I knew I was going to block.
“We work on it every day with Coach [Bobby] Williams, so every day I’m getting better at blocking. Brian [Vogler], he’s a really good blocker, so I learn things from him also. He’s teaching me some things, and I’m taking it and running with it.”
With Howard, the potential is there. The whole country saw it last November against LSU. Now it’s about putting it together for a full season.
“He knows he belongs now,” Howard’s father said. “He knows he can compete at that level.”
2dJeremy Crabtree and Brandon Chatmon