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Will O.J. Howard's national title performance spill over to 2016 season?

Alabama hopes O.J. Howard's performance in the national championship game (208 receiving yards, two touchdowns) is a sign of things to come. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

HOOVER, Ala. -- O.J. Howard was bold at SEC media days. His blue, "Mad Men" appropriate suit reflected the confidence brewing inside the 6-foot-6, 242-pound stallion of an athlete.

For the better part of Howard's three years at Alabama, the physically-menacing tight end had only shown flashes of that same confidence. A sizzling hot prospect coming out of high school, Howard's Alabama career has been nothing short of lukewarm thus far.

Well, that was until Howard's scintillating, five-catch, 208-yard, two-touchdown performance in Alabama's 45-40 win over Clemson in last season's national championship game. For one night, all the hype, style and glamour expected from Howard was rolled into one historic performance.

But was that the official launching pad for one of the SEC's most intriguing players? Did the college football world see the real O.J. Howard?

The game can only hope.

"I think he's definitely someone who is a threat and should be developed as a threat in our offense and should be used as such," coach Nick Saban said of Howard during last week's SEC media days. "And would certainly like to do that. ...

O.J. Howard should be a guy that should certainly create mismatches and do some good things stretching the field."

Back in that January masterclass of a performance, Howard was a horse in football player's clothing. What sort of tight end finds ways to squeak through coverages and average 41.6 yards per catch? When does a tight end have touchdown catches of 51 and 53 yards, and those aren't even his longest plays of the night (63-yard catch)?

Howard has always had the tools, but he spent his first two years at Alabama in offensive purgatory, catching 31 passes for 529 yards and two touchdowns. In 2015, Howard snagged 38 passes for 602 yards and two scores. But if you dive inside those numbers, 394 of those yards came before the title game. In seven games, Howard caught fewer than three passes. Five times he caught either one pass or none.

If not for his national championship performance, Howard's lack of statistical production is still weighing on his career. But that night in Glendale showed college football that Howard, who actually discussed possibly leaving for the NFL early after last season, could finally be a special player in Alabama's passing attack.

“It starts now, and I look forward to going out there and competing every day," Howard said of taking the next step on the field.

While Howard might not be the juggernaut in the stat chart, he's been productive in the shadows. Saban praised Howard's improved blocking ability and called him an "outstanding player" who has contributed to his team in a "fantastic way." Saban even bristled at the idea that Howard has lacked production in his three years because he's meant more to the Tide than just catches and touchdowns.

"It doesn't always get recognized because it seems like it's always recognized on how many big plays you make or how many passes you catch," Saban said. "And he had several really big games for us."

But Howard admits there has been some frustration with his use (or lack thereof) in the passing game. He has grown to understand that he has to be more than just a pass-catcher to be part of the bigger picture at Alabama. That's why he harped on his own blocking ability, something that has battled inconsistency -- but improved -- every year. That's also why he quelled draft talk early and wanted to become a better player in one last year in Tuscaloosa.

Howard wants to be great. He wants to make the big plays with the ball in his hands, but he also respects his role, and hopes that's what pushes him to the top of the SEC tight end list.

“At times, you kind of wonder, but the biggest thing about it is you have to stay patient," he said. "That’s the big key about it because you’re time’s going to come. It’s a process, and when your time comes, you have to make the most of it.”