Florida Gators: O.J. Howard

The Opening has become a breeding ground for future SEC players over the years. It started in 2011 as a football camp for the nation’s top recruits and has grown every year since. For those who haven’t heard of it or know little about it, here’s a fan’s guide to the event.

This year is no different in terms of SEC participation as 37 of the 162 invitees have already committed to SEC schools.

[+] EnlargeLandon Collins
Ryan A. Miller/Icon SMILandon Collins starred at The Opening before becoming a star for Alabama at safety.
SEC commitments by school

Alabama: 10
Texas A&M: 7
Georgia: 5
Florida: 4
LSU: 3
Mississippi State: 2
South Carolina: 2
Tennessee: 2
Kentucky: 1
Missouri: 1

The event will be broadcast on ESPN’s family of networks and gives you a chance to see the future of your school. Don’t believe me? Just look at some of the past participants to come through who are now making noise on Saturdays in the SEC.

Vadal Alexander (2011): If there were any doubts about Alexander before The Opening, he answered them with his performance. He rarely got beat in the one-on-one drills and used his strength to overpower opposing defensive linemen. It was that same strength that helped him early at LSU, and he’s expected to start up front for the third straight season. He and left tackle La'El Collins form a menacing tandem on the left side for the Tigers.

Landon Collins (2011): Collins stole the show at the inaugural camp. He won the SPARQ national championship with a high score of 143.76 and was a beast all week in the 7-on-7 competition. He didn’t make the type of impact he was hoping for as a freshman at Alabama, but he emerged last season with 69 tackles, two interceptions and two fumbles forced. He’s one of the top safeties in the country and projected to be a first-round draft pick.

Vernon Hargreaves III (2012): The week didn’t last long for Hargreaves, who injured his ankle on the first day, but he did run a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 4.1 shuttle before bowing out. That speed and athleticism was evident this past season, as the Florida freshman emerged as one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC. He finished with 38 tackles, three interceptions, and was among the league leaders in passes defended with 14.

O.J. Howard (2012): Tight ends don’t typically stand out at The Opening, but Howard isn’t your typical tight end. He measured in at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, ran a 4.49 40-yard dash and dominated 7-on-7 play with his combination of size and speed. Unlike teammate and fellow Opening alum Derrick Henry, Howard endured a slow start to his Alabama career, but the expectations are high heading into this season.

Laquon Treadwell (2012): Treadwell might not have tested as well as some of his peers, but once he got on the field, he caught everything thrown his way. He showed the ability to make a catch under duress in traffic, and if the ball was in his vicinity, he was coming down with it. That held true at Ole Miss, where he led all SEC freshman with 72 receptions and finished with 608 yards and five touchdowns.
Every four years, we all have soccer fever. I have it 24/7, 365, but the World Cup helps bring out the inner futboler in all of us.

The United States is still trying to catch up to the rest of the world when it comes to the beautiful game, but fans have come out in full force this year to support arguably our most talented World Cup team. And I've even seen it from SEC football players this summer.

Tweets from football players concerning the World Cup have littered my news feed the past couple of weeks. It might be because of the enormous popularity of the "FIFA" video game series, but it's still great to see.

You know what else would be great to see? Athletes like the ones that amaze us every Saturday in the SEC playing some footy. Now, I realize that a lot of these guys might not be the agile athletes that glide all over the pitch with their size, but let's put that aside for a second. Let's expand our minds and have a little fun here. Let's imagine some of the SEC's best current athletes suiting up to make a squad of 11 to play the original football.

We're going with a 4-3-2-1 look, meaning we have four fullbacks and a striker up top. And remember: Please, no biting.

Note: Only one kicker made the cut because most of them played soccer growing up. We wanted to use our imaginations a little more here.

STRIKER
  • Marcus Murphy, RB, Missouri: He looks like a cannonball when he shoots through the line of scrimmage. He's incredibly agile and elusive and would give a healthy Jozy Altidore a run for his money. He makes the most of his opportunities and would be a ball specialist up top.
WINGERS
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida: Yes, he's the SEC's best cornerback, but imagine that speed and athleticism up front. He played soccer growing up, and he's just too agile and quick to keep in the back. Plus, it's a major advantage to have a legitimate ballhawk at forward talk about takeaways at midfield!
  • Laquon Treadwell, WR, Ole Miss: He was my first choice for goalkeeper because of that wingspan and those hands. But the more I thought about it, I want that speed, strength and athleticism leading the charge up front. He also has tremendous control. Wherever Treadwell is, he's the best pure athlete around.
MIDFIELDERS
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: Think Jermaine Jones: Big, fast and powerful. It's going to be tough to get past his intimidating frame, and he has the speed to track the long ball and create a lane for himself when he takes off. He'd be great on set pieces in both boxes with his size, and having him run up and down the field sounds frightening.
  • Landon Collins, S, Alabama: Just try to send the long ball over his head. He's the perfect player to have at center mid. He's your field general/ballhawk, who can take a lot of pressure off the defense. No one is getting behind him and he isn't afraid to challenge opponents. Just call him our enforcer.
  • Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia: Another big body in the middle who has great explosion. I need my midfield well conditioned, but I also need guys who are going to be able to attack and defend. With Gurley's strength, he won't get out-muscled for balls, and once he gains possession, he's gone. He also has superb field vision to own midfield.
FULLBACKS
  • Corey Grant, RB, Auburn: Like fellow SEC reporter Greg Ostendorf told me, "Think Fabian Johnson." Grant has a ton of speed to carry the ball up and be a threat to score, but he's also incredibly strong, so sitting back and playing defense would be something he'd thrive in on the pitch.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: You want a captain and a brick wall heading up the middle of your defense? Well, just look at the thick, rock of a man that is McKinney. He definitely isn't afraid to get physical and with his drop back speed, getting behind him would be terribly tough. Challenge him!
  • Dalvin Tomlinson, DE, Alabama: Who? Yeah, you probably haven't heard of him, but we'll just call him the bowling ball in the back. Somehow, this big bruiser played varsity soccer in high school, so he'd bring good experience to the group. Plus, having an athletic 6-2, 287-pound presence in the middle is scary.
  • Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama: Like Grant, I love his speed on the back wing. He can carry the ball up and create plays for himself and his teammates, plus he can hustle back if a deep ball is sent. Oh, and that tank-like build will make him tough to beat outside the box.
GOALKEEPER
  • Josh Lambo, K, Texas A&M: As a keeper myself, this was the position I had to make sure was perfect. The only kicker on the team, Lambo started playing soccer at age four and eventually played for the U.S. men's under-20 team. He was also drafted eighth overall by the MLS' FC Dallas in 2008 before making it to A&M. No-brainer, really.

Ranking the SEC tight ends

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We started the day by ranking all 14 teams based on their receivers and tight ends. Next, we looked at the top 10 wide receivers in the SEC. Now it’s time to look at the top 10 tight ends.

[+] EnlargeO.J. Howard
AP Photo/Butch DillO.J. Howard figures to play a bigger role in Alabama's offense in 2014.
1. O.J. Howard, So., Alabama: He’s big, he’s strong and boy is he athletic. There were times last season when Howard looked unstoppable. Linebackers were too slow to keep up with him and cornerbacks were too small to cover him one on one. But he was underutilized as a freshman, failing to catch a pass in five games. With Lane Kiffin now running the offense and a new quarterback under center, Howard won’t go unnoticed as a sophomore.

2. Hunter Henry, So., Arkansas: Even without any consistency at quarterback, Henry emerged as one of the most promising young tight ends in the country as a true freshman last year, a pass-catcher who wasn't afraid to go over the middle. He finished with 28 catches for 409 yards and four touchdowns, and this year coaches are expecting even more.

3. Evan Engram, So., Ole Miss: Injuries clouded an otherwise eye-opening rookie campaign. He started last season on a tear with 20 catches and four touchdowns through seven games and then missed the final five games of the regular season. If he has a clean bill of health, he’s the type of hybrid receiver-tight end who can flourish in Hugh Freeze’s offense and complement Laquon Treadwell on the outside.

4. Jake McGee, Sr., Florida: The Gators' outlook at tight end went from bleak to rosy in one stroke when McGee transferred from Virginia, where he was the Cavs' leading receiver last season. At 6-6, 255, he gives quarterback Jeff Driskel a veteran safety net he can turn to in a pinch. Last season at UVA, McGee got a first down or touchdown on 26 of his 43 receptions.

5. Malcolm Johnson, Sr., Mississippi State: When he arrived in Starkville, Johnson was a three-star wide receiver who weighed only 200 pounds. Now, four years later, he’s 231 pounds and considered one of the better tight ends in the conference. He not only has evolved into a tight end, he ha become more productive every year. He had his best season yet last year with 30 catches for 391 yards and two touchdowns.

6. Rory Anderson, Sr., South Carolina: The only question with Anderson is his health. He tore his triceps during spring practice, but the Gamecocks are optimistic that he will be ready for the season. He's a big-play target at tight end who has averaged 17.8 yards per catch during his career and had five touchdowns as a sophomore.

[+] EnlargeJay Rome
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIGeorgia's Jay Rome, who was the top-ranked tight end in the Class of 2011, has 20 career catches for the Bulldogs.
7. Jay Rome, Jr., Georgia: Everybody is excited about incoming freshman Jeb Blazevich, but don’t sleep on Rome. He only had nine catches last year, but he played behind Arthur Lynch and missed the final four games with an injury. At 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, Rome will provide a big target for quarterback Hutson Mason, and be an asset in the rushing game.

8. Cameron Clear, Sr., Texas A&M: Kevin Sumlin’s wide-open up-tempo offense doesn’t have an extensive history of using tight ends but he hasn’t always had the kind of premier player at the position to utilize. Clear, a massive 6-6, 274-pounder who can move well for his size, gives the Aggies a matchup advantage at the position. He wasn’t used often in his first year on campus, but look for his role to expand this fall under new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital.

9. Jerell Adams, Jr., South Carolina: With three touchdown catches in 22 career games, Adams is one of those players who could explode this season. He's got great size (6-6, 247) and more than enough speed to get open and make plays down the field.

10. C.J. Uzomah, Sr., Auburn: He might not be the most productive tight end in the SEC, but he’s one of the most clutch. Uzomah had the game-winning touchdown grab against Mississippi State, and he caught another touchdown in the Iron Bowl. As quarterback Nick Marshall evolves as a passer, Uzomah could see his stock rise.

SEC's next wave of star players

March, 18, 2014
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For the most part, we have an idea who the top returning players are in the SEC for next season.

There are 11 players back who earned first- or second-team All-SEC honors last season from the coaches, including six first-team selections: Auburn center Reese Dismukes, Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon, Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson, Tennessee linebacker A.J. Johnson, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt. The second-team selections returning are Mississippi State tight end Malcolm Johnson, LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins, South Carolina running back Mike Davis, Arkansas defensive end Trey Flowers and Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins.

Picking the next wave of All-SEC players can be tricky, and it's certainly not a given that all these players returning will be repeat selections.

So what we've done is go through and pick the 10 players most likely to emerge as All-SEC players next season, and the caveat is that they can't have previously earned postseason all-conference honors from either the coaches or Associated Press (first or second team). That rules out a few other players not listed above such as Georgia running back Todd Gurley, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., Kentucky defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree and Alabama safety Landon Collins.

Here's our next wave of SEC stars, listed alphabetically:

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
John Korduner / Icon SMIChris Jones showed his big-play potential as a freshman at Mississippi State.
Caleb Azubike, OLB, Vanderbilt, Jr.: Look out for the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Azubike coming off the edge in Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense. Azubike tied for the team lead last season with 9.5 tackles for loss.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina, Sr.: The anchor of what should be the best offensive line in the SEC, Cann enters the 2014 season as perhaps the top guard in the league.

Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama, So.: Just go back and turn on the tape from the Sugar Bowl. Henry is going to be a beast and is in great shape after what's been a terrific offseason for him thus far.

Chris Jones, DE, Mississippi State, So.: The league is full of good, young defensive linemen, and the 6-5, 300-pound Jones is right there near the top. He's a force at both tackle and end.

Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn, So.: The Tigers will miss Dee Ford and his pressure off the edge, but the 6-2, 261-pound Lawson is the next star in the making on the Plains.

Curt Maggitt, OLB, Tennessee, Jr.: You might have forgotten about Maggitt after he missed last season because of injuries, but he's healthy again and will be used in several different roles for the Vols.

Malcolm Mitchell, WR, Georgia, Jr.: Injuries are the only thing that have kept Mitchell from being one of the top playmakers in this league. If he can stay healthy, he'll put up huge numbers in 2014.

Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Ole Miss, So.: The top high school player in the country a year ago, Nkemdiche will move inside and has the size, power and athleticism to be dominant.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: He started his career at guard, moved to right tackle last season and is now in line to be the Aggies' third straight star left tackle as he takes over for Jake Matthews.

A'Shawn Robinson, DE, Alabama, So.: The team leader with 5.5 sacks last season as a freshman, Robinson has a chance to be the best defensive lineman the Tide have produced under Nick Saban.

A few others to watch:

What we learned in the SEC: Week 8

October, 20, 2013
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Saturday was full of upsets, injuries and last-second finishes -- just another day in the SEC. Here are five things we learned from action in Week 8.

Nobody's safe: Five SEC teams in the Top 25 lost Saturday, and only one (Florida) was an underdog coming in. Georgia and South Carolina still were considered among the favorites to win the East, but both teams tripped up on the road to unranked opponents. Vanderbilt scored a touchdown in the final minutes to knock off the Bulldogs, and Tennessee kicked a field goal as time expired to spoil Steve Spurrier's latest trip to Knoxville. No. 7 Texas A&M was a heavy favorite at home against Auburn, but the Aggies' defense let them down again. Auburn rushed for 379 yards and scored late to pull off a 45-41 upset. In the nightcap, a short-handed Ole Miss team jumped out to a 17-0 lead and held off No. 6 LSU at home.

[+] EnlargeL'Damian Washington
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter dominating Florida, Missouri (yes, Missouri) is on a collision course with Alabama to face off in the SEC title game.
Collision course: The only two teams that didn't slip up Saturday were the two unbeatens in the SEC: Alabama and Missouri. Now, the Crimson Tide and Tigers are on a collision course headed for Atlanta and the SEC championship game. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the two-time defending national champions are in this position, but who would've guessed Missouri would still be perfect this late in the season? The Tigers dominated Florida on Saturday, putting up 500 yards of offense to the Gators' 151. Quarterback Maty Mauk didn't miss a beat in his first start in place of James Franklin. The redshirt freshman threw for 295 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He also rushed for 15 yards and a score.

Auburn is for real: You can make excuses, particularly this one: If Johnny Manziel hadn't hurt his shoulder late in the game, Texas A&M would've won. But the fact of the matter is Auburn went to Kyle Field, put up 45 points, gained 615 yards and beat a top-10 team. Quarterback Nick Marshall looked very impressive after missing last week's game. He threw for 236 yards, rushed for 100 yards and scored four touchdowns. Even the defense, much maligned throughout the game, made the stop when it mattered -- with Manziel in the game. It comes back to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. He has changed the culture around the Auburn program, and the Tigers are now 6-1 and the biggest threat to Alabama in the West.

Signature win for Butch: Tennessee came oh so close to pulling the upset against Georgia two weeks ago. It would've been the win to take the Volunteers to the next level, and show recruits that what coach Butch Jones is doing is real. But they came up short. Instead of dwelling on the loss, Tennessee bounced back after a week off and beat a Top 25 team at home. It wasn't pretty, but a win is a win. And how about that catch from Marquez North late in the game to put the Vols in range for the game-winning field goal? That was a grown-man catch. Tennessee isn't likely to go into Tuscaloosa and upset the No. 1 team in the nation, but it's obvious that Jones is turning around the program. The Vols took another step with Saturday's win over South Carolina.

Freshman impact: North's catch was spectacular, but he wasn't the only true freshman who had a big game on Saturday. Georgia's Shaq Wiggins returned an interception 39 yards for a touchdown. Florida running back Kelvin Taylor scored the Gators' only offensive touchdown on a 20-yard run in the third quarter. And for Alabama, tight end O.J. Howard caught his first touchdown pass from 17 yards out, and running back Derrick Henry showed why he was such a heralded recruit with an 80-yard touchdown run late in the game. It just goes to show how important recruiting has become in the SEC, and it doesn't matter if it's the worst team in the conference or the best team -- freshmen will still play a role.

Impact early enrollees in the SEC

February, 21, 2013
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Enrolling into college has become a growing trend in college football. Missing prom and Senior Skip Day has become a regular for a lot of high schoolers these days.

In the SEC, getting a high number of early enrollees is becoming more and more of a priority for coaches. This year, all 14 SEC teams had players from their 2013 classes enroll in school early. Georgia leads the SEC with 13, Alabama has nine, and Florida and Texas A&M both have eight. In fact, 73 players from this year's recruiting class enrolled early at SEC schools in this year.

ESPN colleague Travis Haney unveiled his top impact early enrollees Insider from around the country Wednesday, and of his five players who made the cut, three came from the SEC. Well, four, because he said defensive backs Tray Matthews and Reggie Wilkerson would make immediate impacts at Georgia.

Florida running back Kelvin Taylor, who was the nation's No. 1 running back, and Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who was an ESPN 150 member, also made the list.

Those all make sense. Georgia is basically replacing its entire secondary outside of cornerback Damian Swann, so the Bulldogs will need all the help they can get in the secondary. Florida proved that it could survive -- for the most part -- on a very strong running game last fall, but workhorse Mike Gillislee is gone, so the Gators will need help for Matt Jones and Mack Brown. Taylor is an elusive, physical back who could find himself getting a boatload of carries this fall. And Howard is a real difference-maker at tight end. The Alabama coaches are very excited about his big-play ability and his ability to create a lot of mismatches for defenders.

Haney also gave Tennessee wide receiver Paul Harris the honorable mention nod. Harris comes in at a position of great need, and it will only benefit, well, everyone, having him on campus early.

But what other players who decided to trade in their prom tuxes for shoulder pads could make immediate impacts in the SEC? Glad you asked, because here are some other guys I think you should all keep an eye on:

(Read full post)

Hackenberg, Olsen earn UA Game starts

January, 3, 2013
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Black Team offense

Quarterback: Christian Hackenberg (Penn State)

Running back: Alvin Kamara

Receiver: Alvin Bailey (Florida), Robert Foster (Alabama), Damore'ea Stringfellow (Washington)

Tight end: O.J. Howard (Alabama)

Offensive tackle: Darius James (Texas), Denver Kirkland

Offensive guard: Grant Hill (Alabama), Joas Aguilar (Texas A&M)

Center: Hunter Bivin (Notre Dame)

Captains: Kelvin Taylor, Hunter Bivin, Robert Nkemdiche, Ben Boulware

Black Team defense

Defensive end: Robert Nkemdiche, Elijah Daniel

Defensive tackle: Greg Gilgmore (LSU), Kennedy Tulimasealii (Hawaii)

Inside linebacker: Ben Boulware (Clemson)

Outside linebacker: Alex Anzalone (Notre Dame), Matthew Thomas

Safety: Keanu Neal (Florida), Leon McQuay III

Cornerback: Vernon Hargreaves III (Florida), Tarean Folston (Notre Dame)

Black Team special teams

Long snapper: Tyler Kluver (Iowa)

Kicker/punter: Sean Covington (UCLA)

(Read full post)

Bama TE commit O.J. Howard interview

October, 23, 2012
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Greg Ostendorf talks to ESPN 150 tight end and Alabama commit O.J. Howard about his career night on the field and which schools still recruit him off it.

ESPN 150 TE Howard talks UF visit 

October, 23, 2012
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OJ Howard UA PresentationScott Drucker/IntersportAlabama tight end commitment O.J. Howard enjoyed an unofficial visit to Florida this past weekend.
Although ESPN 150 tight end O.J. Howard (Prattville, Ala./Autauga Academy) is committed to the University of Alabama, he took a visit to Florida during the weekend to see the Gators play South Carolina on Saturday.

“It was different from my usual visits,” Howard said. “It was a different environment going to Florida. It was overall a good visit. The fans were into it the whole time. They did the fourth-quarter song where they stand up. That was pretty cool.”

The game did not disappoint either, as Florida dominated the Gamecocks 44-11 to take control of the SEC East.

Recruiting mailbag: Dawson, Tunsil 

October, 16, 2012
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s time to dip into the GatorNation recruiting mailbag and answer your questions. Because of the amount of questions we’ve received, we won’t be able to get to all of them today -- but we encourage you to post your questions on our Insider fan forum, The Chompions Club.

secrocks2000: With David Dawson decommitting and UF in a good position with him, what happens with Trenton Brown, Ira Denson and Laremy Tunsil? Are the UF coaches looking to take two more OL prospects to go along with the 3 OL prospects already committed?

A: Though Dawson says Alabama and LSU are also in contention, in my opinion the Gators have the best shot of landing the former Michigan commit. Dawson is scheduled to take an official visit to Florida this weekend for the South Carolina game. If that is the case, I would not expect to see FSU commit Ira Denson in UF's class. As for Tunsil and Brown, I believe Florida will take one of the two with Tunsil being the top choice. If the Gators don't feel like they will land Tunsil, look for the Gators to turn up the heat on Brown.

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