It’s not O.J. Howard’s fault that he was born too big to be a wide receiver. He has everything you want: speed, strength off the line, soft hands, versatility, a good burst, open field vision, and he reads coverages well and can adjust his routes on the fly. But, at 6’6”, 242 he’s just too mammoth to be a threat on the outside.
But, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t terrorize defenses.
Even in his freshman year, you could see the deep threat O.J. was as a lanky tight end/H-back out of Prattville’s Autauga Academy. It takes a special athlete at that position to be not only the consensus No. 1 TE recruit, but a 5-star can’t-miss prospect and the No. 16 overall player in his class. He did not disappoint, grabbing 10 balls for 2 scores and nearly 20 yards per catch, including torching the LSU secondary.
Howard is not a naturally gifted blocker — most players along the front seven have him in height or leverage. That was a skill that he had to work on, slowly, over the first three years on campus. Despite not having a score in 2014, he bought-in to the offense, bulked up, and worked on become more physical.
It was no surprise, then, that in Alabama’s run-first 2015 offense, an improved, more complete Howard would have one of his best seasons at Alabama. Sure, Howard still posed a mismatch nightmare in the passing game, but he was much more of a traditional possession tight end, earning the bulk of his yards after the catch. Through 14 games that season, he had hauled in 33 catches for 400 yards, but had not tallied a score. Still, it was enough of a contribution to help get Alabama to the College Football Playoff national title game.
Though the talent was undoubtedly there with the Tide receiving corps, the CFP Final versus Clemson was billed as Deshaun Watson vs. Derrick Henry; a sack-happy Tide defense versus the wide open Tigers defense. That wasn’t exactly how it played out: Coach Lane Kiffin saw a lot to like from an overaggressive Clemson team, and unleashed the not-so-secret weapon: O.J. Howard’s versatility.
To say that it was game for the ages is undersell what O.J. Howard did that night. The stat line would be impressive for any receiver: 5 catches, 202 yards, 2 TDs. But, it was how Howard was used where you finally saw all of the problems he presents: as a decoy, a vertical threat on the outside, slipping behind coverage and exploiting the secondary, in motion on the screen game.
We instinctively think of his touchdown catches that night. But, there was another catch, arguably as important as the ones he hauled in for scores, that allowed Alabama to claim its 16th National Title.
A wild fourth quarter saw the Tide buried in its own territory with four minutes left and clinging to a perilously-thin 38-33 lead. The Tigers had been roaring back, exploiting a young Alabama secondary that was on its heels. The last thing the Crimson Tide needed was to surrender the ball to Watson or come away without a score.
O.J. Howard made sure that it would not happen.
On that rapidly cooling Glendale night in a tense University of Phoenix stadium, Jake Coker and the Tide found itself facing second and 12 at its 23. The Tigers were selling out: there were eight men in the box, the secondary was playing tight, Henry had just been stuffed for a 2-yard loss. Then, O.J. Howard, lined up on the wide side of the field, motioned across the formation. Coker took the quick snap and hit Howard on what should have been a harmless screen.
The blocking did its job, neutralizing two-of-three defenders. O.J. Just needed to beat one man, make one player miss. Fortunately for Alabama, Howard’s speed and improved power were no match for the Tiger’s DB, who was already a step behind his man. O.J. shook the bad angle tackle, turned the corner on the short side of the field and raced ahead for 63 yards to the Tigers’ 14 yard line.
Alabama’s inclination to #RTDB took over: The Tide didn’t put another ball in the air, running 6 plays on the ground, punctuated by a third-and-goal Derrick Henry score. The drive killed almost 3 minutes of game time, and gave Alabama much-needed breathing room, 45-33 Alabama.
Howard would improve his blocking even more, staying his senior season to become an even more well-rounded player. And, as promised, Alabama did get him the ball more. Howard would have a statistically better year as a senior, pulling in 45 passes for 600 yards and scoring three times — including victimizing Clemson again on the nation’s biggest stage. For his career, Howard finished with 114 catches for 1726 yards, seven touchdowns, and a night that put him in Alabama and college football history.
In a legendary game full of highlights by many talented players, it was Howard’s late 63-yard catch and run that sealed the victory. Like Watson, Drake, Humphrey and other players having huge moments that night, OJ is now a millionaire. He was a First Round selection of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In fact, you should watch that game again:
63 days ‘til Alabama football.