Alabama TE O.J. Howard shouldn't sneak up on Clemson this time

TAMPA, Fla. -- Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick doesn't remember if he lifted his arms Lane Kiffin-style or not, but he knew it was a touchdown before O.J. Howard caught it.

Just before the 13-minute mark in the third quarter of last year's national championship game against Clemson, Fitzpatrick watched a stadium video board and saw a Clemson defensive back -- who was supposed to be on Alabama's mammoth tight end -- bite on a play fake from Jacob Coker to Derrick Henry.

His eyes widened, and a smile formed as he caught a glimpse of a wide-open Howard -- all 6-foot-6, 251 pounds of him -- standing on a desert island in front of Alabama's bench. Milliseconds later, Coker hit Howard for an uncontested 53-yard touchdown to put Alabama up by seven.

A quarter later, Clemson's defense met the same fate, as Howard somehow came free near the middle of the field for a 51-yard touchdown to put Alabama up 31-24. It was the game of his life. A player who had been a ghost in Alabama's offense broke out, catching five passes for 208 yards and those two scores.

"I think everybody remembers how he played," Fitzpatrick said with a smile during Alabama's media session Saturday inside Amalie Arena. "He was just left wide open."

That was the general theme of Howard's performance against a Clemson defense that apparently had no scouting report for one of the most physically gifted and muscular players on Alabama's offense. Kiffin, Alabama's former OC, forgot about Howard for most of the season, and Clemson's defense followed suit.

"It was a great feeling to have so many opportunities in that game," said Howard, who caught just 33 passes and had fewer than 400 receiving yards on the season before last year's title game. "On that stage, it’s amazing. Plays came my way, and I just made the most of it."

Three of Howard's catches went for first downs, and the others were scores. He was hiding in the weeds last season, but Howard isn't sneaking up on anyone this time. On the season, Howard has caught 41 passes for 489 yards and has just two touchdowns. He's third in the SEC in receptions and yards by tight ends.

But his slight increase in production isn't what has Clemson's attention. It's the realization that Howard owned this defense last time around.

"We completely ignored him, I know, last year," Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "So we did a terrible job at defending him, obviously. And if we do it again, we'll lose again."

How do you stop a title-game train such as Howard? Well, Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware wouldn't divulge much of the Tigers' plan, but it essentially amounts to, well, not blowing assignments. It's about making sure there isn't too much of a size mismatch.

Oh, and if you have the chance to hit him ... hit him.

"Really, it was just four or five plays," Boulware said of Howard's performance last year. "On two plays, it was crappy tackling, and we were terrible. On another play, we had a corner who was a buck-70 [170 pounds] against O.J. Howard, and that wasn't a good matchup for us. And some of the other plays, we just had bad eyes and weren't locked in on the play, weren't locked in on the play call, weren't locked in on the formation and weren't anticipating it at all."

That, Ben, all sounds like less-than-optimal in-game management.

This year, there's no way Clemson won't anticipate Howard's presence. Last year's performance was too painful, and those wounds are still too fresh. Clemson defenders are salty about last year, and they'll have more than a couple eyes on him Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T.

This time, maybe the Tigers will have a couple bodies on him as well.

"If anything, you want to at least have a contested play, have a good matchup ... to at least attempt to make a play," Boulware said.