O.J. Howard becomes Alabama's star player at the perfect time

GLENDALE, Arizona — Alabama tight end O.J. Howard put his head down as coach Nick Saban began to apologize for not using him in the Tide’s offense more throughout the season.

Howard had just completed a career night in the Tide’s 45-40 win against Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. He had five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns. He was the Offensive MVP and the key piece to a closely contested national title game.

But more than anything, Howard was an unexpected surprise.

“Well, O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long,” Saban said candidly. “Sometimes he was open and we didn’t get him the ball. But I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he’s capable of and what he can do. I would say it’s bad coaching on my part that he didn’t have the opportunity to do that all year long because he really is a good athlete and he’s improved tremendously as a player this year.”

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Howard’s first big play came on a 53-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jake Coker. Howard was lined up with a receiver, both sprinted toward the line of scrimmage on the snap, but the receiver stopped while Howard kept going. The Clemson cornerback stayed with the receiver as Coker faked the handoff. The safety bit on the fake run and left Howard wide open for the pass over the top. Howard was so open, offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had his hands in the air signally touchdown before Howard even completed the catch.

It was Howard’s first touchdown since his freshman season in 2013.

“Initially it felt like a dream,” Howard said. “I tried to tell everybody to wake me up because I thought it wasn’t real. It was just a great feeling to get in the end zone again.”

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A quarter later, Howard found himself open again, this time down the seam, for a 51-yard strike from Coker. The touchdown came just two plays after the Tide had executed an unforeseen onside kick that Marlon Humphrey recovered. Howard’s touchdown gave the Tide a 31-24 lead, a lead they would never relinquish.

Things weren’t always this easy for Howard. He came to Alabama with high expectations as the nation’s No. 1 tight end recruit, but had a hard time fitting into the offense. He had just 14 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns his freshman season, and 17 catches for 260 yards last season. This season he had 394 yards, including 59 in the CFP semifinal against Michigan State, before tacking on 208 Monday.

Saban said what could have been a breakout season for Howard suffered as the team spent much of the season trying to get Coker comfortable in the offense.

“There were times when as Jake was developing we were protecting sort of what we did, and I think that affected O.J. maybe a little bit in terms of what his projection was,” Saban said. “But I can tell you that there was not one time did he ever not go out there and do exactly what the coach asked him to do, even when he wasn’t catching a lot of passes or scoring a lot of touchdowns.”

Howard now has a choice that often affects many players who have a breakout game at the end of the season — stay or go? Howard is draft eligible as a junior and certainly showed that he has the skill both as a blocker and a receiver to make waves in the NFL. It’s easy to be swayed back to school with his newfound success, but Saban’s efforts might be in vain as the history of Howard’s role in the Alabama offense might force Howard to move on.

“It makes me think about coming back and making plays next season for coach. It’ll get me more involved in the offense,” Howard said. “Wednesday we have a meeting. I’m pretty sure my parents will come up there with me and coach, and sit down and we’ll think hard on it. At the end of the day, I’ll make the right decision.”

For more Alabama news, visit TideSports.com.

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Graham Watson is the editor of Dr. Saturday on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email her at dr.saturday@ymail.com or follow her on Twitter!

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