It's much too soon in his career to begin discussing the pro potential of baby-faced O.J. Howard. But after his slant route catch-and-run touchdown Saturday night against LSU, it's easy to see why such discussion is tantalizing even if premature.
The freshman tight end looks like a freshman with his boyish looks only. He's got the physique of a man.
That size coupled with his uncommon speed for an athlete 6-foot-6, 237 pounds are what make him such a tough receiver to deal with. The fortunate thing for the University of Alabama is that he's just getting started.
Howard statistics won't leap off the page at you, his 11 catches for 225 yards and a couple of touchdowns can be viewed as pedestrian until you consider he's a true freshman playing in the Crimson Tide's pro-style offense.
He's asked to block far more than he's asked to run patterns.
Yet he's hauled in two noteworthy passes.
The first came against Texas A&M on the road in a see-saw contest in just Howard's second career game. On a second and 15, quarterback AJ McCarron floated a ball just over a linebacker and into Howard's hands for a 26-yard gain. Alabama scored what would be the game-winning points five plays later.
Against LSU. Howard split our far right and ran a slant route, beating the cornerback before outrunning the entire Tigers secondary to give UA a 10-7 lead.
The run after the catch is what grabbed everyone's attention.
"I get surprised all the time," UA coach Nick Saban said. "O.J. is very athletic, he's got really good speed. It didn't surprise me that he did what he did. Thought it was a fantastic play on his part. I'd like to get surprised some more. How about that?"
Senior wide receiver Kevin Norwood was on the field for the play, so he didn't see the play evolve. He just knew Howard was moving.
"I was more behind, so when he caught the ball, he was just running. I was looking more at him at the way he was running, because it was funny to me. But he made it, man. I was like, 'Wow this dude is gettin' it.'"
Norwood said he's only seen guys that big move that fast at the next level.
"Maybe in the NFL or something," he said.
Playing in all nine games, Howard immediately added depth to the tight end position along with Brian Vogler. He's improved his blocking, which was a must to expanding his playing time.
"He's come a long way," right tackle Austin Shepherd said. "He's really committed to doing everything the right way in practice. He works hard, does everything right, listens to the coaches. You can just tell that guy likes to work and he's improved a tone.
"I just think, technique wise, he's gotten a lot better. He's listened to Coach (Bobby) Williams, Coach (Mario) Cristobal, the way we run the zone play, things like hat. He just listens to everything and he's very coachable, that's what helps."
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