<
>

Alabama breakout candidate: TE O.J. Howard

15h

Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon and Blake Sims are long gone. For that matter, so are Landon Collins and Xzavier Dickson.

Thanks to the NFL draft, both sides of the ball at Alabama was depleted. Now the Crimson Tide need more than just one or two players to emerge, they need a few.

This week we’re looking at four breakout candidates for the Crimson Tide in 2015, two on offense and two on defense.

O.J. Howard, TE, Jr.

The skinny: By now, anyone who pays attention to the SEC has heard about Howard. They’ve read about his prodigious talent, how he’s part of a new wave of tight ends who are big enough to block defensive ends and fast enough to run by linebackers. They may have even seen those skills on display when he’s caught the ball and broken free into the open field as he did on a 52-yard touchdown against LSU in 2013. But those moments for the former four-star athlete have been few and far between.

It’s a harsh reality for someone entering his junior season, but it’s a reality nonetheless that Howard has not lived up to the hype. He’s 6-foot-6, 242 pounds and runs like a gazelle. But what good does that do without the production to back it up? In 2013, he caught 14 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns, which isn’t bad for a true freshman. But as a sophomore, he had 9 fewer yards receiving and no touchdowns. His 17 receptions weren’t enough to rank among the SEC’s top-10 tight ends and were half of that of Steven Scheu, Evan Engram and Hunter Henry.

High expectations: But would anyone be the least bit surprised if all that changed in 2015? Of course not. Expectations for Howard haven’t gone anywhere. He’s still penciled in as the starter, after all. If anything, the anticipation for his emergence as one of the league’s best tight ends has increased. While he’d still have another season of eligibility to work with after this one, it feels like now or never.

So on to the reasons for optimism, the least of which being that he is still big, strong and fast. But other than his innate skills, he’ll have a new quarterback to work with, and we all know the best friend of an inexperienced QB is his tight end. If Howard becomes the safety valve for Jake Coker or whoever ends up starting under center, his numbers could skyrocket. What’s more, he won’t have to contend with Amari Cooper being everything to Alabama’s passing game as he was in 2014: the deep threat, the third-down threat and the safety valve. With Cooper out of the picture, things could open up for Howard.

If there's one final reason to believe Howard's best is still ahead of him, it's Lane Kiffin. The second-year offensive coordinator has gotten the most out of his playmakers everywhere he's been. In the case of Howard, splitting him out wide at receiver could be the answer. Then again, maybe he needs to have more short passes thrown his way where he can run after the catch. But whatever it is, you get the sense that there has to be an answer out there.

Previous breakout candidates: