TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- He was Alabama's secret weapon in the postseason a year ago, which is ironic when you consider that few players on the Crimson Tide's roster are more gifted athletically, or were more highly recruited, than O.J. Howard.
"I guess, maybe, a lot of people forgot about me," said Howard, Alabama's freakishly talented tight end who speaks like an orator and runs like a wide receiver.
At least to some degree, his own coaches seemed to forget about him until it counted most.
Howard -- along with a perfectly timed and executed onside kick -- was the difference for Alabama last season in its 45-40 victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship. He torched the Clemson defense for 208 receiving yards, the most in a bowl game for any Alabama player in school history, and also caught two touchdowns.
Here's the catch: Before those two touchdowns, he had gone 32 games (or more than two full seasons) without reaching the end zone.
Even Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin poked fun at himself for not using Howard more during the season.
"We'd been resting him, so we knew he'd be fresh," Kiffin cracked.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was more pointed and called it "bad coaching" on his part for not seeing to it that Howard was more involved in the offense all season.
In retrospect, Howard says he got what he came to Alabama for, a national championship, and says the onus is on him to become a more complete player, which is ultimately why he elected to return to Tuscaloosa for his senior season and pass on the NFL draft. Early returns indicate that was the right call, as Howard is the 16th pick in Todd McShay's way-too-early 2017 mock draft.
"I feel like there are a lot of things in college I can do, a lot left out there on the table that I can accomplish," Howard said. "I can mature on the field, get stronger, and my blocking can always get better. There are a lot of things I can work on, and the best place to do that is here. The NFL is going to be there. The main thing is to make sure you're as ready as you can be for that jump when you go, and I don't think I was."
Since Howard split the LSU secondary in 2013 as a freshman and outran everybody for a jaw-dropping, 52-yard touchdown, the college football world has been waiting for him to explode. Guys that big with those kind of hands simply aren't supposed to be that fast.
But for much of the past two seasons, Howard was more of a decoy than he was a focal point of Alabama's offense. There were reasons for that over and above the Crimson Tide simply not utilizing him. For starters, he was a liability in the running game as a blocker and also busted his share of assignments.
One of the things Saban was most impressed with this spring concerning Howard was how much he improved as a blocker under the tutelage of Mario Cristobal, who added tight ends to his coaching responsibilities.
"We know what O.J. can do catching the ball, but he's worked hard to become a better player when we're not throwing it, and that makes him even more of a threat in our offense," Saban said.
The 6-foot-6 Howard played at 242 pounds last season and was right around 245 this spring. His goal is to be up to 250 pounds by the start of the 2016 season. In the two College Football Playoff games alone, he caught eight passes, and most telling, all eight resulted in touchdowns or first downs. He averaged 33.4 yards per catch in the two playoff games and had four catches of 40-plus yards.
That's after not catching a single pass in the Auburn, Florida and Georgia games earlier in the season.
"Overall, it was still my most productive year since I've been in school, but it was also frustrating at times," Howard said. "But I'm the type of player that loves to see the team succeed. When it came down to those games at the end of the year, I had chances to make plays, and I did. My motto is that when the ball comes my way, I've got to make the play, whether it's once a game or 10 times a game.
"I didn't get a lot of opportunities during the season, so I had to make every one count. In those late games, I got a lot of opportunities. The only thing on my mind was that I had to make something happen. It wasn't that I felt like I had to prove that I deserved more opportunities. It was more that I had a responsibility to my team to help us win a championship."
On both of his touchdowns against Clemson, as well as his 41-yard catch against Michigan State, Howard was wide open. He figures to draw more attention next season, which will only open up more things for everybody else around him on offense.
The cast will look a little different. Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry is gone, and for the third straight season, the Crimson Tide are heading into preseason camp unsure about who their quarterback will be. Junior Cooper Bateman, redshirt freshman Blake Barnett, sophomore David Cornwell and true freshman Jalen Hurts are all locked in a battle for the starting job.
"Every year I've been here, I've had a different quarterback, so I'm used to it," Howard said. "Our coaching staff looks at it like each guy has a fair chance to win it, and they really don't go out there and try to make one guy stand out over the other. It's going to be the guy who wins the team over by the way he plays and his leadership skills. Basically, the team chooses because coach Saban knows which one the team has the most confidence in by the time we get to the season."
Howard gave serious thought to turning pro in January and discussed it at length with his parents and Saban. He said the NFL draft advisory committee recommended that he stay in school, and that the NFL people Saban spoke with projected that the highest he would go would probably be late in the second round.
"I want to take that next step and be a dominant receiving threat," said Howard, who has 69 career catches and has averaged more than 15 yards per catch all three seasons. "I feel like I can be a mismatch. I'm still working on running routes and getting them to where they're perfect. If I get all that down and become more savvy as a player, that's only going to help me."
Howard wants to be consistent enough that Kiffin goes into every game wanting to get No. 88 the ball.
"That's what makes him so good, the way coach Kiffin can put guys in motion, swing them out and get them the ball no matter what defenses are trying to do," Howard said. "You saw what he did with Amari [Cooper]. Two of my big plays in the playoff, the one against Michigan State and one of the touchdowns against Clemson, were plays we drew up just for those two teams because we saw the way they played defense.
"Coach Kiffin is great at drawing up plays, and I want to be one of the main guys he's drawing up plays for next season."