TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Like countless rookies before him, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard's start to the season was shaky. He dropped the first pass ever thrown to him and never saw the ball come his way again in the season opener against Virginia Tech. The very next game, on the road at No. 6 Texas A&M, he was whistled for a false start on the opening drive, sending his offense in reverse. Predictably, the Crimson Tide went three-and-out, punted and the Aggies got the ball back and promptly scored to go ahead by two touchdowns.
The groans could be heard all the way from Alabama's campus in Tuscaloosa. Howard, however talented he might be, was showing the telltale signs of youth in an environment that dictated nothing less than perfection.
Brian Vogler had been there before and he knew just what to say when the offense got to the sidelines that day at Kyle Field.
"It’s a crazy environment down there," Alabama's veteran tight end said. "I told him, ‘Hey, man, in my first start against Michigan, I got a false start, too, so don’t worry about it.' "
Howard responded. He went back out and caught three passes for 68 yards, helping top-ranked Alabama remain undefeated in an offensive shootout against Texas A&M.
"He grew up a bunch in the Texas A&M game -- and he had to," Tide quarterback AJ McCarron said. "Third down and 12 or 15 or whatever it was and we completed the pass to him late in the game, kind of sealed the deal. He’s done an excellent job for us. Just got to keep progressing, can’t take any steps back.
"He does an excellent job of doing what we ask him to do. Hopefully, we can keep getting him more touches."
McCarron seemed happy to have a tight end who could create mismatches with his height, speed and athleticism. And he should be. He has never had anyone quite like Howard to whom to throw the ball.
Nick Saban has never utilized a tight end with Howard's skill set since taking over at Alabama in 2007. While the rest of the country has moved toward pass-catching tight ends who could be split out wide, Saban kept his tight ends on the line of scrimmage, hand on the ground, pounding away at defensive linemen and linebackers. Big plays have been few and far between. Their job was to block for Heisman hopeful tailbacks and field a handful of passes in the red zone each year.
The numbers bear out that fact. No tight end has ever caught more than 35 balls or broken the 400-yard receiving mark at Alabama under Saban. Meanwhile, college football has seen 83 instances of a tight ends finishing the season with more than 35 receptions and 400 yards. All-American Tyler Eifert had 113 catches and 1,485 yards over his final two seasons at Notre Dame.
Alabama's lackluster numbers were the biggest reason why Howard entered his rookie season viewed as something of a savior at the position. Not since Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome in the 1970s had UA featured a tight end who could move like Howard, whose long legs bound effortlessly like a deer when he runs upfield. He's big yet graceful, jumping and pivoting like a power forward in shoulder pads.
"O.J. Howard is a different kind of player, young player, very athletic, pretty good pass receiver," Saban said. "[He] has to get a little bigger and stronger, maybe work on his blocking a little bit, but he is tough and he will try and get after you. His athleticism is a real asset to the passing game. He gives us another threat out there. We’re really pleased with his development."
The tight end position as a whole has grown leaps and bounds this season. Howard's 13 catches for 148 yards has something to do with that. He is, after all, tied for fourth nationally in yards per reception among tight ends. But Vogler and utility back Jalston Fowler have picked up the pace as well.
All told, Alabama's tight ends are on pace to finish the season -- should it go 13 games -- with 57 catches and 642 yards. That number would surpass the previous high in production when Brad Smelley and Co. ended the 2011 season with 52 receptions and 558 yards. And that's if things stay on course. As Howard keeps developing and growing more comfortable in the offense, he stands to do even more in the passing game.
Howard still shows some signs of youth, and the growth of the tight end position as a whole is still in its embryonic stages. After a rough start to the year, things are coming along. After dealing with early season frustrations, there's reason to believe Howard and his fellow tight ends are ready to take the next step.