O.J. Howard giving Alabama one last shot to make the most of him

O.J. Howard has the game of his life (0:33)

Alabama tight end O.J. Howard hauls in three catches of 50-plus yards, two for touchdowns. (0:33)

O.J. Howard isn’t going to appear anywhere on our list of the SEC’s top 25 players this week.

That doesn’t have to come with a spoiler alert, seeing as Alabama’s junior tight end wasn’t anyone’s All-American and wasn’t on either the coaches or Associated Press All-SEC teams.

When you look at production, he didn’t deserve to be. He wasn’t one of the top three at his position in the SEC this past season, ranking behind Arkansas’ Hunter Henry, Florida’s Jake McGee and Ole Miss’ Evan Engram. Heck, you could argue that Henry’s backup, Jeremy Sprinkle, had a better season with six touchdown receptions.

If you’ve seen Howard play in person throughout his career then you know what a travesty that is. And even if you haven’t, if you watched him carve up Clemson for 208 yards and two touchdowns during the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, then you have to be wondering how it ever got to be like this.

He’s too big, too fast, too athletic. At 6-foot-6 and 242 pounds, he runs like a gazelle.

You see him in the open field and wonder how anyone could ever miss him, and yet that’s exactly what Alabama did for the better part of three seasons. Offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin joked after beating Clemson that the Crimson Tide were “resting him,” but it felt more like hibernation -- or, better yet, witness protection.

Somehow, one of the most talented tight ends and biggest mismatches in all of college football went two full years without a touchdown and failed to total more than 70 receiving yards in a game during the regular season. In high-stakes games this past season against Auburn, Florida and Georgia, he didn’t have a single catch.

The prevailing wisdom surrounding his absence from the stat sheet has been that he wasn’t a good enough blocker. But it’s not as if Howard was absent from games. He was No. 1 on the depth chart and a constant fixture on the field. You watch the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic and he’s open on passing routes more often than not, but like the rest of his career his number was rarely called and he hauled in a paltry three catches for 59 yards against Michigan State.

Credit goes to Tide head coach Nick Saban for saying after the championship game, “Quite honestly, he should have been more involved all year long,” and admitting how it was “bad coaching on my part.”

The good news for Saban and Kiffin is that it’s not too late to change their ways.

Howard has decided to turn down the NFL draft and come back for his senior season, and it’s their job to finally make him the kind of player who is a focal part of the offense and someone who will never be left out of another All-American or All-SEC conversation.

There’s room on Alabama's offense for more than Calvin Ridley and whoever emerges at running back, whether that’s Bo Scarbrough or Damien Harris.

With a new starting quarterback ready to take over, Howard should become the ultimate safety blanket in the passing game.

Confused? Find No. 88.

Pressure coming from the defense? Find No. 88.

A good tight end is a quarterback’s best friend, and Howard appears to be ready and able to take on the role.

Howard said what he was able to do against Clemson made him “think about coming back and making plays next season.”

“It’ll get me more involved in the offense,” he said.

That’s the plan at least.

For three years we wondered what was holding him back. We saw the obvious talent and tried to figure out why he wasn’t a better player. And during the course of one game, we found out it was only a matter of time and opportunity.

Howard is returning to Alabama in hopes of more. It's Alabama's job to return the favor and deliver on that promise.