TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Shortly after Alabama won the national championship over Clemson, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban began recruiting star tight end O.J. Howard to return to Tuscaloosa for his senior season.
Saban didn’t directly say he wished Howard — who was named offensive player of the game after catching five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns — would bypass the NFL draft and come back for another year. But the five-time national championship winning coach talked openly about how he felt Howard could be used in the Tide’s offense going forward. Those words touched Howard, who ultimately made the decision to stay in school and help defend the Tide’s latest SEC and national titles. Howard said returning was a “no-brainer.”
“It was kind of a decision where I thought I had so much left on the table in college,” Howard said Monday. “How I can mature on and off the field. It really wasn’t a hard decision at the end of the day. (My family and I) thought about it a lot.”
Many draft analysts believed Howard was the second-best tight end prospect in the country behind Arkansas’ Hunter Henry. Saban advises players who receive first-round grades to enter the draft. For running backs, he extends that to the second round because of how short their careers can be.
“He’s kind of the type that’s neutral,” Howard said of Saban’s input. “But he lets you know, ‘I think you can improve on this.’ ‘I think it will be helpful if you come back and do this.’ He played a role in it also, but coach tries to really let you decide. He does a great job of telling you what you can improve on if you come back.”
Howard said when he told Saban the news, he didn’t give him a hug or anything, but the coach was “excited” and “glad” Howard decided to stay. Saban called Howard an “outstanding player.”
“There are things he knows he can improve on as a player, and there are things we can improve on to utilize him better on a more consistent basis, which we certainly plan on doing,” Saban said Monday. “He’s been very productive in the two practices we’ve had. I think it’s going to work out great for him and work out great for us that he made the decision that he made. We’re excited about it and looking forward to him being someone who is very productive for us next year.”
Last season, Howard caught 38 passes for 602 yards and two scores. But there’s still plenty of untapped potential inside the 6-foot-6, 242-pound tight end out of Prattville, Ala. Howard and Saban have had conversations about what areas he needs to improve on heading into his final year with the Tide.
“Route running. You can always get better in blocking. You can never be too good of a blocker,” Howard said. “Just that next level, just elevate it a lot more. Just be dominant. That’s really what I’m trying to do.”