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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- There's something dangerous about diving headlong into a recruit's game film, mainly because it's never really just that. What is seen online are chopped and spliced 3-minute packages hitting the highlights. We see what players and coaches want us to see.
|O.J. Howard caught 31 touchdown passes in high school and was a two-time All-State honoree.|
Before Howard ever set foot on the University of Alabama's campus, the blue-chip prospect already was seen as a game-changer, a gifted athlete who could revive the tight end position in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama coach Nick Saban isn't one to rally the hype machine. In fact, he abhors it. But what he saw in Howard was enough for him to drop a few hints. During Saban's radio show in January, he was asked whether the Tide would join in on the tight end revolution started by his friend and former colleague, New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. Saban, who said he couldn't talk about specific recruits, didn't fail to insinuate with his answer.
"We feel like we found one of those kind of players this year," Saban explained, leaving the rest to the imagination.
Could Howard be the next Aaron Hernandez, the next Rob Gronkowski?
On film, Howard is that type of talent. He's a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-6 and well over 200 pounds. He can make catches that look impossible for someone his size. He was, as many Division-I prospects appear to be, a man among boys in high school. He was so good as a sophomore at Autauga Academy (Prattville, Ala.) -- setting a school record with 31 total touchdowns -- that he committed to Alabama ahead of schedule. Over the next two seasons, he'd average 1,133 total yards and earn back-to-back AISA All-State honors.
"He was a monster on tape," said ESPN senior national recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill.
Howard didn't shrink in the face of real competition, either, when he played in the Under Armour All-America game . The tape, as it turned out, didn't lie.
"He was able to quickly adapt," Luginbill said. "He was able to quickly up his game and realize that the speed of the game and the strength and power of the game had changed."
But that was still at the high school level. In January, Howard ventured into an even deeper pool of talent when he enrolled early at Alabama. He began classes and went to work in the weight room right away, bulking up to 237 pounds. As arguably the most decorated signee in his class, the pressure already was on.
If there was ever a piece of the puzzle missing for the Crimson Tide offense, it has been at tight end. Since the start of Saban era in 2007, no tight end has had more than 35 catches in a season. This past season was an all-time low at the position, as Michael Williams and Co. combined for 33 catches and four touchdowns.
Enter Howard: part savior, part college freshman. The freshman could be a dynamic difference maker with his ability to be a mismatch for defenses. His size and ranginess would overpower smaller cornerbacks, and his speed would be an issue for some linebackers and safeties.
"I want to come in and make a statement, work for everything," he said on signing day. "I don't want anything given to me. I want to prove myself."
Wise words from a man looking up from the bottom of the depth chart. Brian Vogler, Harrison Jones, Malcolm Faciane and Kurt Freitag all have been in the system longer.
It's undervalued how much strain a dynamic player at the tight end position can put on a defense. When you have to account for a guy that can stretch the seam, pressure the safety and create mismatches versus your linebackers in the passing game, that changes the makeup of your defense.” -- Tom Luginbill, ESPN.com senior national recruiting analyst
But before Howard spoke with reporters on Feb. 6, he was busy in the film room with his position coach, Bobby Williams, readying himself for the start of spring practice, his time to prove he's ready to make an impact right away.
"He's trying to get me on the field early," Howard said, "watching film, learning the playbook, things like that."
"It's going to be a race to see who gets the Y position and the H, Williams said prior to the national title game.
"The two best people may not play. It's all about who fits together as a unit. ... If this person cannot co-exist with this person, the play won't work, nothing will work."
So far, it looks as if Howard will split his time between H-back and tight end this season. He has said he is looking forward to playing both positions and seeing what offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier has in store for him. As he noted on signing day, Alabama wasn't throwing the ball much a few years ago, but lately things have changed. The offense has opened up in recent seasons as coaches are more open to exploiting defenses through the air.
After a few spring practices, even the competition is taking notice.
"He's a whole new dimension to this offense," said Vogler who had two catches last season. "He's very long, very athletic, very fast.
"He's learning very fast and he takes teaching, which I think really says a lot about his character as a player. He's making progress and I think he'll be a viable offense to our offense."
And it's not a moment too soon. If there was ever a tight end meant to play in a pass-happy offense, it's Howard.
Don't believe it? Just look at the film.