TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — For the most part, he was an underused asset in the passing attack for the University of Alabama football team. Tight end O.J. Howard averaged 2.5 catches and 37.5 yards per game during his four seasons with the Crimson Tide, but he posted career numbers against Clemson in the last two national championship games.
Two seasons ago he made 5 receptions for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Tigers and was named offensive MVP of the title game. In his final college game, Howard caught 4 passes for 106 yards and another score.
So who could be that person this time around when Alabama and Clemson meet for the third straight year in the College Football Playoff (Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET)?
It might be a running back.
Actually, it might be two running backs, who could occasionally be in the backfield together.
When it comes to underused offensive assets, one could make the argument that the term applies to nearly everyone on the roster not named Calvin Ridley. The junior wide receiver has 55 receptions for 896 yards, and no one else has more than 14 catches.
Part of that is due to Alabama’s offensive approach.
Former offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin was known for finding something that worked and repeatedly going to it until the defense stopped it and forced him to do something else. It’s partly why Amari Cooper had 124 receptions in 2014 and why Alabama often went with the hot/healthy hand at running back.
Under Brian Daboll, that’s changed a bit to a more diverse offense, with more contributors and an attempt at attacking all areas of the field. Between passes and catches, junior Bo Scarbrough has actually touched the ball the most among the running backs with 122 touches, while junior Damien Harris has had 118 and sophomore Josh Jacobs 55.
However, sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts leads the team in carries with 137, which at the collegiate level includes sacks (22).
One of the biggest complaints from fans during the loss at Auburn was that Alabama didn’t run the ball enough against the Tigers, even though the Crimson Tide had 37 rushing attempts compared to 24 passes, and averaged 5.6 yards per carry.
The majority were by Hurts. None of the running backs had more than six rushing attempts, or eight touches, while combining for 154 total yards.
Alabama ran 61 offensive plays vs Auburn (Average 67.3 plays/game)
Damien Harris had 8 touches
(Averages 9.8 touches/game)
Bo Scarbrough had 8 touches
(Averages 10.2 touches/game)
Josh Jacobs had 8 touches (Averages 5.5 touches/game)
Play calling was fine, execution was poor.
— Greg McElroy (@GregMcElroy) November 27, 2017
Nevertheless, getting them out in front of the offense has to be a priority against the Tigers, especially since it might be Alabama’s strongest position group offensively. Attrition and style points are no longer concerns, just results.
“We’re not worried about attention,” Scarbrough said last month. “We’re just trying to win.”
The team that fares better on the ground should have a huge advantage in this third meeting. But it’s not just in the running game that they could make their mark, which brings us back to Howard.
Alabama vs. Clemson combined stats
Category Alabama Clemson
- First downs 34 62
- Total yards 849 1,061
- Passing yards 490 825
- Rushing yards 359 236
- Turnovers 0 3
- Third down 11-33 13-32
Howard’s ability to get open against Clemson resulted in a combined 9 catches for 314 yards, and all 3 touchdowns were big-time plays, for 68, 53 and 51 yards. The only 100-yard receiving games of his career accounted for 64 percent of Alabama’s passing yards in those title games, while Ridley had 11 catches for 50 yards.
Howard’s performances also accounted for nearly 20 percent of his career yards (1,726), and almost half of his touchdowns (7).
Jones could be an option on similar routes, and has had success lining up out of the backfield.
“It’s obviously a luxury to have a stable of running backs like that and so many guys who can execute at a high level and have different specialties, for lack of a better word,” offensive lineman Jonah Williams said. “Josh is obviously a guy who can do a lot of things, and when he goes in there he adds a new element to our offense.”
Most of Scarbrough’s receptions have been short routes out of the backfield to try and get him the ball in open space. Plus, he had 16 carries for 93 yards and 2 touchdowns before suffering a fractured leg against Clemson last season, a key turning point in the title game.
It’ll be inserting to see what he does with another shot at the Tigers.
— SEC Country Alabama (@SECCountryBama) January 13, 2017