TAMPA, Fla. — What the tiny town of Autaugaville, Ala., did for Alabama tight end O.J. Howard last Feb. 27 made him realize how much his life had changed.
A month earlier, Howard had the best game of his career when he had 5 receptions for 208 yards and 2 touchdowns in Alabama’s 45-40 victory over Clemson, which secured the program’s 16th national title.
Because of Howard’s success in the game and him being named MVP, his hometown threw him a parade filled with motorcycles, cars and floats decked out in Alabama gear.
“That was one of the biggest things to happen to me,” Howard told SEC Country at media day Saturday. “To have your own parade and own day is pretty sweet. They had footballs with my name on it. It was cool to get that much support from my hometown.”
Entering the national championship game last season, Howard didn’t have any touchdowns and his season-high yardage mark in one game was just 70. So Howard never expected to break out in the biggest game of the season.
“It was just the right timing,” Howard said. “I got the opportunities and made the most of them. There’s so much talent around the offense that it’s hard to get that many big-play opportunities. Just in that particular game, with the coverages they were running, the tight end position was coming wide open. It worked out perfectly.”
Howard’s mega performance was still fresh on the minds of Clemson coaches and players Saturday.
Tigers linebacker Ben Boulware said Howard makes it difficult for linebackers to win 1-on-1 matchups against him because of the combination of his size and speed. Boulware said there were four or five plays that he wished Clemson could take back, and the majority of them centered around the Alabama tight end.
“Guys were just busted,” Boulware told SEC Country. “I don’t know if some of our guys weren’t prepared for this, that and the other.
“I really just think it comes down to bad eyes and guys looking into the backfield and just didn’t see two receivers out there. A couple of plays we had really bad tackling. We were really sloppy — especially the back seven — I think our front four played pretty well and held their own on the offensive line. The back seven guys just weren’t locked in. It was a very sloppy game.”
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney summed up his team’s problems in stopping Howard simply by saying the Tigers didn’t cover him. Clemson left him wide open twice for his scores and then missed a tackle on a swing pass in the backfield late in the fourth quarter.
Swinney is hoping the coincidences he mentioned about the No. 88 give his team good mojo this time around.
“Last year I watched No. 88 run up and down the field on us, and that was my number at Alabama, and then I come into this game with 88 wins,” Swinney said. “Maybe we can come out on the other side this year. Maybe the karma will be on our side.”
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables doesn’t think Howard’s magical performance will be replicated on Monday because of the improvements he feels the Tigers have made this season. The Tigers come into the championship game with the nation’s No. 16 passing defense, as they’ve only given up 183.8 yards through the air per game.
“I think we’ve shown our body of work through 14 games as we’ve played with more discipline and given up a lot less explosive plays in the year,” Venables said. “It’s night and day from where we were a year ago.”
If there’s one person who believes Howard can have the same success against Clemson twice, it’s Alabama linebacker Tim Williams.
Williams told SEC Country that the reason why he feels like his pass-rushing skills are elite is because of going up against Howard in practice every day his first two seasons.
“O.J. is the fastest tight end I’ve seen with my own two eyes,” Williams said. “The guy is just really a really amazing athlete and a freak. He actually helped my pass-rushing skills my freshman and sophomore year because me and him stayed going at each other. He’s really taught me a lot about technique. O.J. is a beast. I feel like he is just one of those guys that doesn’t get a lot of shine.”
Even with last year’s title game performance, the 6-foot-6 tight end hasn’t stuffed the stat sheet this year. He has 41 receptions for 489 yards and 2 touchdowns, but Howard has no qualms about not getting the ball more because the team is where it should be — playing for national championships.
“Each person has an assignment to do,” Howard said. “Once you figure that out and look at it from that standpoint, it’s OK. As long as you get the win and we’re scoring touchdowns, it really doesn’t matter how we get there. I just feel lucky to play sometimes.”
His answer wasn’t just another standard “processed” quote, either. Williams, who is arguably the most outspoken player on Alabama, said that’s just who Howard is. He doesn’t care if he gets 20 touchdowns a season or zero. As long as there’s a W in the left side of the column, that’s all he cares about.
“O.J. can turn up. That guy is great,” Williams said. “I feel like the fans and the media don’t give him all that he deserves. The guy just does amazing things. He’s just unselfish. He’s really all about the team. He just really loves his teammates and wants to see us win. O.J. is a beast.”
Howard could have chosen to leave for the NFL draft after having his career day, but he chose to come back to school because he wanted to improve his blocking techniques, which he feels like he has, and to graduate, which he has done, too, with a degree in telecommunications.
He also came back for the reason why he’s in Tampa this week, to win another ring. But he knows because of his performance last season, Clemson will zero in on him all game. He doubts he’ll have more than 200 yards again, but he hopes by some chance, he will.
“I’m really ready for it if it happens again,” Howard said with a laugh.