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How O.J. Howard went from an underutilized TE at Alabama to a likely first-round draft pick

O.J. Howard didn't have a ton of opportunities to stuff the stat sheet at Alabama. But NFL teams are drooling over his potential—and chances are, he'll be incorporated into the passing game more at the next level.

Like most young football players nowadays, O.J. Howard likes to play Madden in his downtime. On the field, his game is likened to that of Greg Olsen and Jordan Reed, but the former Alabama tight end doesn’t play with Carolina or Washington when it comes to video games.

Once his opponent settles on a team, Howard chooses between the Raiders, Chiefs and Cardinals.

“If I have a guy going with Julio [Jones] and the Falcons, I have to get Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu,” Howard said. “I’m all about matchups.”

Not even five minutes earlier, ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. referred to Howard, a near-given to be the first tight end drafted later this month, on his annual pre-draft conference call as “a matchup nightmare.” At 6' 6", 251 pounds and boasting a 4.51-second 40, Howard has the size to beat a corner or safety and the speed to run away from a linebacker in coverage. If only he was able to showcase more of that at Alabama…

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O’Terrius Jabari Howard has gone by O.J. his whole life, and his first name incorporates the name of his uncle who died in a car crash in 1984. Terry Parker was a 19-year-old reserve basketball player at Alcorn State University when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver on his way back home for holiday break. Parker’s younger sister and Howard’s mother, Lamesa Parker-Howard, said she and other townsfolk of Prattville, Ala., see much of Terry in O.J., as if the tight end is living out the athletic potential his uncle was stripped of three decades ago.

After his sophomore year of high school, the nation’s top tight end committed to play for Alabama and Nick Saban, despite the fact that the Crimson Tide haven’t had a tight end drafted before the fifth round since 1998, and the program hasn’t produced a player of note at that position since Ozzie Newsome in the late ’70s. The tight end has been revolutionized in recent years everywhere except Alabama, and there was never going to be many slices for a the pass-catching Howard under Saban.

To top it off, the Crimson Tide featured an All-America receiver in Amari Cooper and a future Heisman-winning running back in Derrick Henry. So Howard was tasked with improving at blocking for a run-heavy Crimson Tide and then make the most of his opportunities when the ball came his way in the passing game.

“I feel like I could have gone somewhere else and gotten a lot of catches and not learned how to block and not learn how to be an all-around football player,” Howard said. “But at Alabama it prepared me for the NFL. I learned how to block, I became a better team player. It paid off in the end, but of course I could have gone a lot of other places and got the ball a lot more and had the crazy stats.”

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Howard had just 595 receiving yards as a senior, falling just short of his career-high 602 yards a season before. In comparison, top-three tight end prospect Evan Engram had 926 yards last season for Ole Miss and nearly double the career receiving yards (2,320 to 1,726) as Howard.

Howard isn’t bitter, though. He emphasizes he’s a team player and prefers “disappointed” to “frustrated” that the ball didn’t come his way more often. Howard knows that scouts who came to Alabama’s practice saw him make plays as a pass-catcher that Alabama didn’t dial up on Saturdays. Even Saban has lamented multiple times that Howard should have been used more.

“I think he’s improved dramatically as a blocker in the last couple years at Alabama, probably because we had a freshman quarterback [Jalen Hurts] that we tried to protect some,” Saban told NFL Network at the Senior Bowl. “Maybe he didn’t have the production that a guy that has his ability, you’d expect. But I think he’s going to be one of those guys in the NFL that really shines because of his ability.”

Just twice in his four-year career did Howard eclipse the 100-yard receiving mark for Alabama, but both times came in the national title game against Clemson. He combined to catch nine passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers, including a 208-yard performance in the 2016 title game that earned him Offensive MVP honors.

Howard didn’t have anyone to match up with him on three of his five catches against Clemson in that game, slipping past Tiger defenders after lulling them to sleep with his blocking. His athleticism was on full display with the other two catches, once where he slipped out on a naked bootleg for a 16-yard completion and the other where he turned a short screen two yards behind the line of scrimmage into a 63-yard gain as he beat most of the Clemson defense down the sideline with his 4.51 speed.

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“We always knew he had talent, and I knew that if you wait in due time, your season will come for you to shine,” said his mother Parker-Howard, the antithesis of LaVar Ball, father of UCLA basketball star Lonzo Ball. “He had that breakout game and he did it in the biggest game on the national stage. That comes to show that if you’re humble and you wait, you’ll get what’s due to you.”

What’s coming to Howard now is a first-round draft choice to a team in the top 15, and possibly in the top 10. Parker-Howard wants her son close enough to where she can gas up the Juicemobile—her 2016 Tahoe with Alabama tags reading “88MVP” that she drove to games—and go, but not so close where she’ll want to be there every weekend to distract him.

Howard has met with the Buccaneers, Titans, Panthers, Jaguars and Bears, all teams with picks in the top 19. He’ll have to block—and improve his blocking technique—for whatever team that takes him, but it’s also safe to assume he’ll be incorporated into the passing game more than he was in college.

“I’m looking forward to it. I play better when I can have the ball in my hands and make the guys around me better,” Howard said. “I’m an athlete. I like to make plays. It’s going to be exciting to finally go out and get the ball and show people what I’m really able to do.”