Clemson won’t miss former Alabama tight end O.J.Howard

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 09: Tight end O.J. Howard
TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 09: Tight end O.J. Howard /

Alabama will be missing a key offensive weapon from the past two meetings with the Clemson Tigers. 

No. 4 Alabama will be without tight end O.J. Howard when they face No. 1 Clemson in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Last year, Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts completed 13 of 31 pass attempts for 131 yards and one touchdown. In the 2016 National Championship game matchup, Jacob Coker completed 16 of 25 for 335 yards and two touchdowns. Both quarterbacks leaned heavily on Howard. He caught nine of the 29 completed passes, gained 290 of the 466 yards and had all three receiving touchdowns in those games, whereas his teammates caught 20 passes for a measly 152 yards. He also caught a 24-yard pass from receiver Ardarius Stewart. Even Calvin Ridley, who will leave Tuscaloosa as the best receiver in school history, only has 11 catches for 50 yards against the Tigers.

When Clemson football fans look back at game one of the trilogy, disenchantment, what-ifs and probably a few four-letter words come to mind, because six critical plays defined the outcome of the game.

  1. The Eddie Jackson interception of Deshaun Watson with Clemson holding a 14-7 lead.(11:58 of 2nd quarter)
  2. The Howard 53-yard touchdown.(12:53 of 3rd)
  3. The Howard 51-yard touchdown.(9:45 of 4th)
  4. The on-side kick(10:36 of 4th)
  5. Kenyan Drake’s 95-yard kickoff return touchdown.(7:31 of 4th)
  6. The Howard 63-yard gain on a screen pass with 3:58 left in the fourth.

Howard was involved in half of the plays, and he won Offensive MVP honors for his five catch, 208 yard and two touchdown performance. In the rematch, he had four receptions, 106 yards and a touchdown. Once again, he was the team leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. And just like in the first game, he was left wide open for a score. Howard scored on a 68-yard pass with over a minute left in the third quarter to give the Tide a 24-14 lead.

Stewart is the only other Alabama player with a catch over 30 yards against the Clemson defense. In the 2016 game, he advanced a screen pass 25 yards and then Coker found him with a 38-yard heave on the crucial 3rd and 11 play in the fourth quarter. Stewart is now with the New York Jets and Howard the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

So who will make the plays in the passing game?

Ridley is the Crimson Tide’s leading receiver for the third consecutive year. He has 55 catches, 896 yards and three touchdowns, and Cam Sims, the second leading receiver, only has 14 receptions. Last season, Ridley and Stewart entered the game with 67 and 52 catches, respectively, but finished with a combined 7 catches for 48 yards.

Will Ridley have a breakout game or will the tight end play a pivotal role again?

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Irv Smith Jr. replaced Howard and for the season, he has 13 catches, 122 yards and three touchdowns. Smith is athletic, and is absolutely capable of making a few game-changing plays.