An enduring image from Alabama’s two previous meetings with Clemson in the College Football Championship Game is, in the midst of all the crowds and noise and heavy-hitting football players, the most unexpected scene of all.
That is the image of a lonely man, standing solitary in a field.
That man was Alabama tight end O.J. Howard.
In the 2015 game, Howard caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Both of those touchdown passes from Jake Coker went for more than 50 yards and on both, Howard stood out like a giant saguaro in the Arizona desert. One would think that Clemson’s defense would never make the same mistake again — but it was the same thing in 2016 when Jalen Hurts found an uncovered Howard for an even longer touchdown pass of 68 yards.
Howard is no longer on Alabama’s roster, having moved on to the NFL Tampa Bay Bucs. That doesn’t exactly mean that Clemson can breathe a sigh of relief.
Alabama’s current tight end, Irv Smith Jr., has posted record-setting numbers in the Crimson Tide’s revamped offense, but he still remembers Howard’s performance as a recruit and then in his freshman year.
“He balled out,” Smith said. “He had what, like two or three touchdowns. I want to go out and have a big game like that. I was behind him then so I was cool seeing that (from the sideline), but it’s my turn now.”
Smith said he and Howard text each other frequently, although they haven’t specifically spoken about Clemson.
“He just tells me to keep making the most of all the opportunities.”
Smith’s season — 40 catches for 667 yards and seven touchdowns (an eighth was called back in the Oklahoma game last Saturday because of an illegal formation call) — has him ranked among the top three available tight ends prospects for the upcoming NFL Draft, should he choose to forgo a final year of eligibility. He said on Tuesday that he would make his decision after the Clemson game.
He also said that the big statistical year was not a surprise.
“I felt like coming in it, it was possible,” Smith said. “Coach Locksley and our quarterbacks have done an awesome job finding ways to get me the ball. Everybody has their own role and does their own job, but it’s been awesome. The last (Oklahoma) game we ran the ball more so I didn’t run as many routes, but whatever I’m called on to do, I’m ready. “
Alabama back on the field
Alabama held a two-hour outdoor workout in spider pads and shorts on Tuesday as it prepares for the CFP Championship Game against Clemson.
Linebacker Christian Miller, who pulled a hamstring in the Oklahoma game, was present and wearing a support strap on his left leg, but did no full speed work. Offensive linemen Deonte Brown and Elliot Baker and tight end Kedrick James, who were all suspended from the Orange Bowl due to what Nick Saban called “violations of NCAA rules,” were also at practice but there was no report on whether they would travel with the team to California.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
Alabama vs. Clemson
When: 7 p.m., Monday, Jan. 7
Where: Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Records: Alabama 14-0, Clemson 14-0
Radio: 95.3 FM