O.J. Howard too good to be true

AUTAUGA, Ala. -- Sometimes Autauga (Ala.) Academy coach Michael Sims thinks ESPNU Watch List athlete O.J. Howard is too good to be true. He is good enough to already have committed to Alabama. He plays a handful of positions and impacts every phase of the game. He has enormous size and athleticism and even more upside.

On top of that, he's just as good of a person off the field as he is on it.

"You would never know that he's one of the top juniors in the state and one of the top players in the country," Sims said. "You would never know it. It's doesn't brag or boast. Despite all his outstanding physical traits his biggest strength is his character. There are not many like him these days and he doesn't have a negative bone in his body. He's such a positive kid. I never have known a kid to be like that with all his ability."

Howard, 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, mainly plays wide receiver and defensive end, but also lines up at quarterback and running back. So far this season, he has 28 receptions for 768 yards and nine touchdowns and also 348 yards rushing and four TDs on 16 carries. Want more? Howard has thrown for 218 yards and a pair of scores and defensively, he has 74 tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and four blocked field goals.

It doesn't begin and end with football. Howard averaged a double-double last season in basketball and also hit .400 with eight home runs for his high school baseball team.

"He's just incredible," Sims said. "I think some of those baseballs still haven't landed."

Despite the looks of it, it hasn't always come easy for Howard. He was born with the size, but his dedication to improving is something he had to learn on his own.

"I worked hard over the summer on a lot of things like route running and basic drills," Howard said. "I want to be more focused. I want to make more plays. I have to be a better leader and I have to become faster."

Sims had most of his skill players run the sand dunes in Autauga during the offseason. OK, sand dunes might be stretching it. It's really a sod farm about four miles from the school.

"It goes up about 200 feet high and it's brutal, especially in the summer," Sims said. "We would do it once a week. Sometimes they would carry power polls and run it. It's old school but it works. It was voluntary and O.J. never missed one workout. When we started doing it he was running 4.75 (40-yard dash). He dropped his time to about 4.59 (at the Alabama camp)."

It's scary to think Howard is getting bigger and faster. In fact, Sims said that local doctors still believe he has roughly two inches to grow.

"I think he will be a tight end or outside linebacker at Alabama," Sims said. "If he continues to get faster he could be a receiver. He does a lot with the ball in his hands and he has the ability to make things happen. He's a kid that just does everything the right way and he has a great work ethic. And he's going to get a few inches bigger."

Howard committed to Alabama over the summer after camping with the Crimson Tide. Ironically, at this time last year he was hoping to go to Auburn.

"I grew up an Auburn fan," Howard said. "Last year, I was their biggest fan at this school. But I started visiting Alabama and I have been there quite a few times. I know it's the place for me. I love the coaches. They are very up front with you. They treat you like their kids and then when it's time to coach you they coach you."

It's funny, Howard bears a resemblance to former Auburn Heisman winning QB Cam Newton. So much so that he got double takes when he wore an Auburn jersey to school with Newton's number on it.

"He would wear that No. 2 jersey around the school and people would want to pose in pictures with him," Sims said. "You look at him and he looks just like Cam. He's big like Cam too."

Now, kids dress up in Howard's No. 5 jersey.

"Everyone around here idolizes O.J., especially the elementary kids," Sims said. "It's unreal. When we have a pep rally and if he doesn't talk to the students, the kids boo us. They all want to hear from him.

"Just a few weeks ago we clinched our region against Sumpter County and he touched the ball one time. He never said a word. So if it sounds like he's too good to be true, then he is."

Jamie Newberg has been covering recruiting both in the Southeast and nationally for 19 years. He can be reached at jamienewbergbw@yahoo.com.