Alabama TE O.J. Howard ready to make plays, live up to the hype

O.J. Howard ranked 51st among tight ends in receiving yards last season. He's working to improve that. Stacy Revere/Getty Images

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- In every joke, there’s an ounce of truth. And every so often, there’s a dash of perspective.

Such was the case when Alabama tight end O.J. Howard decided to play the part of a television reporter one afternoon this summer. As an intern with Crimson Tide Video Productions, he helped come up with the idea to wear civilian clothes, not divulge his true identity and ask strangers on the street about Alabama football. Eventually, he'd ask about himself.

The response was telling: Howard recalled only one person knowing it was actually him.

In one exchange captured on video, a fan said he'd like to see more of the tight end used on offense. Howard asked, “If there was a tight end you could think of that could stand out next year, who would it be?” The fan and his friend standing next to him nearly winced in response. There was a long pause followed by, “That’s a good question” and “I’m going to say [Ty] Flournoy-Smith.”

“You guys ever heard of tight end O.J. Howard?” Howard asked. “What do you think about him?”

“Oh! Prattville, Alabama, by all means,” the man’s friend said. “O.J. is very good. But to echo what my friend said, he just didn’t touch the ball enough. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that an athlete like O.J. Howard, you have to get him the ball.”

But Alabama has its very own rocket scientist, at least when it comes to diagramming an offense. His name is Lane Kiffin, and last year he didn’t use Howard much at all.

Yes, Howard is a former blue-chip recruit. According to ESPN, he was the second-best tight end-H coming out of high school in 2013. And, yes, there’s no doubting his athletic prowess. He’s 6-foot-6, 242 pounds and runs like a gazelle.

But there’s no getting around the numbers. Last season, Howard, a sophomore, ranked 51st among tight ends in receiving yards, nationally. He had no touchdowns, and his 17 catches were half that of Vanderbilt’s Steven Scheu, Ole Miss’ Evan Engram and Arkansas’ Hunter Henry.

“It’s not Little League, where everyone gets the same amount of touches,” Kiffin said when asked about Howard. “You saw it last year with Amari [Cooper] and everything being so lopsided. It came down to, ‘OK, if he’s your best player, give him the ball.’ It’s a basketball mentality. ... I think Amari had 47 catches in the first quarter of games alone. Now he’s gone, so where are those catches going to go?

“I think O.J. could be a lot of that. He’s a very special player. He works extremely hard like Amari did. Amari was one of the hardest workers on the field that I've ever been around. Probably Reggie [Bush] and Amari, and O.J. and Derrick [Henry] are kind of those next two guys where you see them out there working everyday.

“Hopefully O.J. has a chance to have a big year.”

Howard thought last year was going to be his breakout season, and it wasn’t. His receiving yards and touchdowns actually dipped.

So this summer, he took a long, hard look in the mirror. He said he was “really honest with myself” and asked, “What do I need to do to become a better football player?”

“I took all those things and I wrote them down,” he said. “And then I went out and started doing them every day until I got better at it.”

One of the things he singled out was route-running. But the big emphasis, he said, was blocking.

In Alabama’s offense, you can’t be a wide receiver masquerading as a tight end. If you can’t help the running game and chip block an edge-rusher, you’re not going to play.

“Now, man, I’ve progressed a lot since last season and I’m ready to show everyone else what I can do,” he said.

Teammates have noticed. Linebacker Dillon Lee said he’s seen Howard “running faster routes” and gaining a better understanding of Kiffin’s offense.

“I just feel like he’s more comfortable,” Lee told reporters in Tuscaloosa. “He’s making a lot of plays.”

Instead of being overshadowed by Cooper as he was last season, Howard wants to fill the former star receiver’s shoes and be the player Kiffin builds his offense around.

“That would be a great opportunity, just getting the ball a lot and making plays for your team,” he said. “That’s something every guy would love to do. And I think I can be that guy.”

Everyone understands he has the talent to do it.

But whether he’s destined to be an anonymous bust or a late-bloomer is anyone’s guess.