AP Sports Writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — O.J. Howard had been the forgotten man in Alabama’s offense at times, disappearing behind a barrage of Derrick Henry runs and Calvin Ridley catches.
The Crimson Tide tight end delivered quite a “remember me” performance in Monday night’s 45-40 victory over Clemson in the national championship game, flashing speed and hands to become a surprising hero of the game.
Howard kept sneaking behind the Clemson defenders and finding himself wide open for big plays: touchdowns of 51 and 53 yards and a galloping 63-yarder in the fourth quarter that set up Alabama’s final touchdown.
Five catches, 208 yards. And offensive MVP honors.
This from a player who hadn’t scored a touchdown since sprinting 52 yards on a crossing route against LSU. In 2013.
“O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long,” Tide coach Nick Saban said. “Sometimes he was open and we didn’t get him the ball, but I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he’s capable of and what he can do.
“I would say it’s bad coaching on my part that he didn’t have the opportunity to do that all year long, because he is a really good athlete and he’s improved tremendously as a player this year.”
Howard also delivered three catches for 59 yards in the semifinal win over Michigan State.
The 6-foot-6, 242-pounder always had the speed, as evidenced by that eye-catching play against LSU as a freshman. Saban said he’s improved his blocking, too.
“He hasn’t caught a ton of balls, but he does a lot of great things with his blocking, too,” Tide center Ryan Kelly said. “You see the speed of him running down the sideline with guys chasing him down. That’s impressive. He’s a heck of a tight end.”
The performance might have made Howard’s decision about whether to return for his senior season or head to the NFL easier — or harder. Howard said he plans to sit down with Saban and family Wednesday and talk about his future plans.
Howard definitely liked hearing his coach talk after the game about getting him the ball more
“It makes me think about coming back and playing and making plays next season for coach,” Howard said. “It’ll get me more involved in the offense.”
He came into the game with 394 receiving yards and less than 1,000 in nearly three seasons. But Saban said the former five-star recruit never complained when the ball wasn’t coming his way with much frequency. Howard didn’t catch a pass in several games, including the regular-season finale against Auburn and the SEC championship game against Florida.
“You can’t get frustrated when you’re not getting the ball,” Howard said. “I know how that works, you get frustrated, you start messing up plays and then you’re getting other guys hurt.
“If you’re missing a block, you’re definitely not going to get the ball if you’re pouting about it. You’ve just got to be a good team player and play hard every down so that’s what I continued to do.”
It paid off in the end.
“I’m just glad he finally got to show everybody what he can do,” quarterback Jake Coker said.