The Saban 250: 51-60, O.J. Howard was Mr. Clutch in CFP Title Games

BamaCentral marks the end of the Nick Saban coaching era with the definitive rankings of his top 250 players with the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Alabama tight end O.J. Howard (88) carries on a long gain against Clemson in the College Football Playoff Championship Game on Monday January 11, 2016 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Az.
Alabama tight end O.J. Howard (88) carries on a long gain against Clemson in the College Football Playoff Championship Game on Monday January 11, 2016 at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Az. / Mickey Welsh
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Over the 17 years that Nick Saban coached the Alabama football dynasty, he had at least one consensus or unanimous All-American player at each every-down position, minus one. But he did have a first-round selection in the NFL draft at that position, a player who came through in a big way during back-to-back national championship games.

There was little about tight end O.J. Howard that could be called typical. One the one hand, he didn't have the kind of statistics that usually translated into a player being considered a top NFL prospect: 114 catches, 1,726 yards and seven touchdowns. Those would be outstanding over one season, and very good over two. Those were accumulated over four years.

Yet those aren’t the numbers that had NFL scouts and team officials were focussed upon. With Howard, they saw his 6-foot-6 frame, his long arms (33¾ inches) and big hands. Then, at a slimm251 pounds, he ran the 40-yard dash in an eye-popping 4.51 seconds.

Hello, first round.

“Outstanding,” Mike Mayock of the NFL Network said in the days leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, when Howard was selected No. 19 overall after months of seeing his stock rise. He was one of the players to really stand out at the NFL Scouting Combine and the Senior Bowl, where he won the practice award from a panel of NFL scouts and Senior Bowl staff members.

“He’s dynamic. He’s tough. He has worked on his craft,” NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks said. “At the top of the charts, you’re trying to make sure you don’t miss. He’s almost a can’t-miss prospect in terms of what he brings to the table. With those guys, those are special guys."

Howard was considered a natural receiver, showed no lack of toughness over the middle, and could line up anywhere and exploit mismatches. He’s a nightmare to cover, especially for a linebacker.

Howard also became a good blocker, which was a big reason why he came back his senior year — to work on that part of his game. That's the part of Howard's development that few people talked about.

When most Crimson Tide fans think of Howard, the first thing to immediately jump out is almost always the 2016 CFP National Championship Game, when Alabama got in a shootout with Clemson. Although the Crimson Tide had thrown to Howard just 49 times for 38 completions in 2015, Lane Kiffin dialed him up when he had his mic-dropping championship performance with 208 yards and two touchdowns on five receptions to be named the game's offensive MVP.

Howard could have bolted for the NFL then to take his chances at being a first-round selection (which didn’t work out so well for some of his teammates; five Alabama players were picked in the second round), but he wouldn’t have been considered a complete player. Plus, financially the difference between No. 5 and No. 20 was about $13 million.

That he only saw 59 pass attempts for 45 receptions as a senior was more of a reflection on the play-calling, again, although he did have another big game in the national championship with four catches for 106 yards including a 68-yard touchdown.

“He came back for 10 more targets, which I don’t think they did him any big favors there,” NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah said. “But I think you’re talking about an elite skill set. You’re talking about someone with high character, toughness. He checks every box. I think he’s one of the safer picks in the draft.”

Regardless, Howard's success in the draft was indicative of how Saban's posted unpredented numbers during his time at Alabama, both in terms of copious first-round picks and overall selections. Except for running backs, who have a shorter shelf life in the NFL, or there's extenuating circumstances, his general recommendation for players considering leaving early was that they should stay unless they were solidly projected to be chosen in the first round.


The Saban 250: 51-60

The Saban 250 ranks the players who made the biggest impact during his time with the Crimson Tide (2007-23).

51. Evan Neal, T, 2019-21

• Consensus All-American 2021; second-team All-American
• 2021 All-SEC
• Seventh-overall pick in 2022 NFL Draft
• Team captain 2021
• Started at right guard his first season and was an SEC All-Freshman Team selection.
• Neal moved to right tackle in 2020, and played left tackle during his final season when Neal was credited with 34 knockdown blocks.

52. Terrion Arnold, CB, 2021-23

• 2023 All-American; second-team All-American
• 2023 All-SEC
• 24th-overall selection in 2024 NFL Draft
• Over two season was credited with 108 career tackles, including 7.5 for a loss and one sack, 26 passes defended and six interceptions
• During his first full season at cornerback tied for the SEC lead in interceptions with five. Was second in the league in passes defended with 17. Averaged 1.2 passes defended per game to tie for the SEC lead and 10th in Division I.
• Was credited with 63 tackles to rank fifth on team, including 6.5 for loss and one sack.
• Originally entered the program as a safety. As a redshirt freshman in 20022, played in 11 games, with seven starts. Had 45 tackles, including one for loss, to go with eight pass breakups, one interception and a fumble recovery. Was named a Freshman All-American by the FWAA

53. Rashaan Evans, LB, 2014-17

• 2017 All-American
• 2017 All-SEC
• No. 22-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft
• Had a team-high tying 74 tackles, including 13 for a loss, despite missing a pair of games due to painful groin tear. Also had six sacks, seven quarterback hurries, three pass breakups, a forced fumble and one fumble recovery
• Had 150 career tackles, including 23.5 for a loss and 15 sacks, plus two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries
• Team captain

54. John Metchie III, WR, 2019-21

• 2021 second-team All-SEC
• Second-round pick in 2022 NFL Draft
• Finished his career with 2,081 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns
• Totaled 155 career receptions to rank seventh in Crimson Tide history
• Was four catches shy of 100 during 2021 season when suffering a knee injury in SEC Championship Game. Had six receptions for 97 yards and a touchdown when the injury occurred just before halftime
• Averaged 16.7 yards per reception during 2020 season

55. Eddie Jackson, DB, 2013-16

• 2015 second-team All-American
• 2015 All-SEC; 2016 second-team All-SEC
• Fourth-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft
• Team captain
• Has Alabama record for career interception return yards with 303 on nine picks. Tied the program all-time career record for interception returns into the end zone with three
• Arrived as a wide receiver, moved to cornerback and started four games as a true freshman. Switched to safety before junior year
• Credited with 126 career tackles, including 7.5 for a loss, and nine interceptions

Former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at the 2014 NFL Draft
May 8, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama) stands with his mom Nicole Dix for a photo during the NFL Draft red carpet arrivals at Radio City Music Hall. / Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

56. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, 2011-13

• 2013 consensus All-American
• 2013 All-SEC
• No. 21-overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft
• As a sophomore led the Crimson Tide with five interceptions
• Despite missing two games, finished his junior year with 51 tackles and two interceptions
• Had 98 career tackles, 15 passes defended and seven interceptions

57. Christian Harris, LB, 2019-22

• Third-round selection in 2022 NFL Draft
• Played in 41 games over three seasons, and was credited with 221 career tackles, including 27 for a loss and 10 sacks, along with seven pass breakups, an interception, three forced fumbles and two recoveries.
• Started all 15 games during 2021 season. Made 79 stops, 12.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks, along with three pass breakups and two forced fumbles
• Had the exact same number of tackles in 2020, 79, while playing through a shoulder injury during the team's run to the national championship. Had seven tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, three passes defended an in interception
• Named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2019. In 12 starts had 63 tackles, 7.5 for loss).

58. Henry Ruggs III, WR, 2017-19

• No. 12-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draf
• Third on Alabama’s career touchdown receptions list with 24
• Averaged 17.5 yards per catch across his three seasons, good for sixth on the UA career list (minimum 50 catches)
• Had Alabama’s longest rush (75 yards) and the second-longest reception (81 yards) in 2019
• Finished Crimson Tide career with 98 receptions for 1,716 yards, and 24 receiving touchdowns

59. O.J. Howard, TE, 2013-16

• 2016 All-American
• 2016 second-team All-SEC
• No. 19-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft
• With five catches for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns was named Offensive MVP honors for 2015 title game against Clemson. The yards were the most in a bowl game in Alabama history, and set a College Football Playoff record
• Led all receivers in yards with 106 on four receptions with a career-long 68-yard touchdown catch in 2016 title game against Clemson. Finished with 314 receiving yards and three touchdowns in two championship games against the Tigers

60. Will Reichard, K, 2019-23

• 2020, 2023 second-team All-American
• 2023 SEC Special Teams Player of the Year
• 2023 All-SEC (K), second-team (KOS); 2022 second-team All-SEC (PK, KOS)
• Sixth-round pick in 2024 NFL Draft
• Had the first, and only game-winning field goal of the Nick Saban era, against Texas in 2022
• Taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility, set an NCAA record with 547 career points
• Set a new Alabama record with 84 field goals made, including 10 from 50-plus yards, and 295 career extra points
• Connected on more than 95 percent of kicks under 40 yards
• During his final season, was 55-for-55 in extra points, ,22-for-25-in field goals including 5-for-5 from 50-plus yards. Had 52 touchbacks on 87 kickoffs

Alabama kicker Will Reichard makes game-winning field goal at Texas.
Alabama kicker Will Reichard makes a field goal late in the fourth quarter to beat Texas at Darrell K Royal/Texas Memorial Stadium on Saturday September 10, 2022. / Jay Janner/American-Statesman / USA

The Crimson Tide Chameleon: Eddie Jackson

It was a play that seemed almost tailor-made for Alabama safety Eddie Jackson, right down to the seams.

The Crimson Tide wasn’t playing particularly well during the second quarter of its 2016 season home opener against Western Kentucky, when on second-and-8 at the his own 32, Hilltoppers quarterback Mike White executed a play-action and threw the ball downfield between his route-running tight end and wide receiver, who were both well covered.

The only one who saw the ball the whole way was Jackson, and, having slid over, reached up to make the easy interception.

Yet the play was anything but over.

Suddenly aided by a caravan of blockers, the senior only had one thought in mind as he juked past one player, eluded another who had dove from a bad angle and stiff-arm to the quarterback at the 10-yard line before walking into the end zone. 

“I knew it was a crucial turnover,” Jackson said. “We needed to score.”

Up 17-3 following the 55-yard interception return, Bryant-Denny Stadium fans were able to breathe a little easier because they had seen this before. A pick-six is one of the most backbreaking plays that can occur in a football game, and sure enough Alabama went on to win 38-10. 

But for Jackson, it helped confirm his status as one of the top safeties in the Southeastern Conference, if not nation. Not only was it the 10th interception of his career, but third that directly resulted in points. The other two occurred during the 2015 national championship season, at Georgia and Texas A&M, but this was the first time he was able to celebrate the accomplishment with home-cheering fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

He also had a pickoff in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game against Clemson, which helped him land defensive MVP honors. It was a nice way to cap his first season at safety after initially being a cornerback.

“It was real frustrating making that change, basically coming in as a freshman all over again; you have to learn different plays and everything. Different guys on the other side, you were giving the calls,” Jackson described the switch to strong safety, where he had the unenviable task of trying to replace All-American Landon Collins.

“Now I’m taking the calls,” said the player who became a living example of overcoming adversity, including having been overlooked by many as a recruit.

That was as part the recruiting class of 2013, when Jackson was listed as a consensus 3-star prospect Boyd Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla. Only Alabama knew better and saw what it considered to be a good two-way player, and plucked him out the Sunshine State.

Jackson ended up starting four games at cornerback as a true freshman, but en route to taking over as a starter the next spring suffered a torn ACL. Not backing down from the injury and taking a redshirt, Jackson played in the season opener against FAU and went on to make 10 more starts.

During the subsequent offseason the coaching staff was left with critical holes to fill, especially at safety, while also having some extremely talented young cornerbacks including Marlon Humphrey, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Tony Brown.

Jackson was asked to make the move along with Geno Matias-Smith to provide a veteran presence and more overall speed on the back end. Besides, it figured to be a better fit for Jackson if he wanted to play at the next level.

“I think he just adds another dynamic player in our secondary,” former Crimson Tide cornerback Cyrus Jones said. “I mean, he was a good corner. But I think having a guy that’s played corner and has that type of feel for the game playing safety, it’s definitely a valuable part to our whole defense, not just the secondary.”

The only concern was how well the converted corners would hold up while playing the more physically demanding positions

But you already know how it worked out in the larger sense.

Statistically, Jackson’s six picks led the SEC and his 230 return yards shattered the school record of 163 set by Hootie Ingram in 1952.

That led to second-team All-American honors form the Walter Camp Foundation and the Football Writers Association of America, and third-team status from the Associated Press. 

But when it came to being motivated, Jackson said he looks to his mother, father and sister more than anyone else.

“They just push me to be better every day,” he said. “You know, they call, my mom sends me bible scriptures every day. I talk to my dad. You know, they never lost faith in me over anything, and they just stay on top of me and push me.

"Most definitely [they help me]. Especially in camp as a freshman, making that transition from high school, it's kind of tough, so you need your family there to comfort you as well.”

That from the man who added a tattoo on his arm reading: "Tough times don't last, tough people do.” He called it a motto to live by. Depending on how tough you are, “you can overcome anything."

Jackson’s living proof regardless of the scar on his knee – although that’s not what he wants to be remembered for at Alabama. His tailor-made legacy would be “Just a guy who came out and competed every time. Gave his all every play.”

Wait, not pick-sixes?

“Yeah that too,” he said with a smile.

Alabama defensive back Eddie Jackson celebrates his interception in the 2016 national title game
Jan 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Eddie Jackson (4) celebrates an interception with defensive back Maurice Smith (21) and defensive back Marlon Humphrey (26) against the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 CFP National Championship at University of Phoenix Stadium. / Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

See also: 61-70 Highlights the Move that Helped Make an All-Pro

Next up: 45-50


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Christopher Walsh

CHRISTOPHER WALSH

Christopher Walsh is the founder and publisher of BamaCentral, which first published in 2018. He's covered the Crimson Tide since 2004, and is the author of 26 books including Decade of Dominance, 100 Things Crimson Tide Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, Nick Saban vs. College Football, and Bama Dynasty: The Crimson Tide's Road to College Football Immortality. He's an eight-time honoree of Football Writers Association of America awards and three-time winner of the Herby Kirby Memorial Award, the Alabama Sports Writers Association’s highest writing honor for story of the year. In 2022, he was named one of the 50 Legends of the ASWA. Previous beats include the Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, along with Major League Baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. Originally from Minnesota and a graduate of the University of New Hampshire, he currently resides in Tuscaloosa.