Joe Medley: Howard, Prosch players to watch in Iron Bowl

jmedley@annistonstar.comNovember 28, 2013 

I'm all about No. 10 in the white jersey and No. 14 in blue.

No. 21 in blue and No. 4 in white will be fun to watch, too.

But I have this strange feeling that the most meaningful action in Saturday's Iron Bowl meltdown between top-ranked Alabama and No. 4 Auburn will involve No. 35 in blue and 88 in white.

No. 35 in blue is Auburn's Jay Prosch, a fullback who will likely never carry the ball but will have a major say in how far Nos. 14 and 21, quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason, carry it.

No. 88 in white is freshman tight end O.J. Howard, who matches tight end size with near-wide receiver speed and will find moments to match up with Auburn's linebackers, the weakness of the Tigers' defense.

Look for Prosch and Howard on the field Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Make yourself look away from Marshall and Mason and Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and running back T.J. Yeldon long enough.

Prosch and Howard will be keys in Auburn's bid for an upset and Alabama's bid to prevent it.

Handling Howard

Howard is a matchup problem for anybody, let alone Auburn linebackers Jake Holland and Casanova McKinzy. Both have gotten better, and so have backups Anthony Swain and Kris Frost, but none of them have had to cover the likes of Howard.

He's 6-foot-6, 237 pounds of pure NFL salivation, and the slightest mistake in coverage can mean an explosive play or touchdown. That showed on Howard's 52-yard touchdown catch and run in Alabama's 38-17 victory over LSU.

Howard initially lined up next to right tackle Austin Shepherd, with LSU defensive end Jermauria Rasco over him. Howard then flexed out to slot width, the lone receiver to the right side, drawing coverage from LSU cornerback Jalen Mills.

At the snap, Alabama's three receivers to the left side flowed short and to the right. So did tailback Kenyan Drake, coming out of the backfield and pulling LSU linebacker Lamin Barrow to Alabama's right.

Howard went a few yards deeper than the other four Tide players in the pattern then cut left, against the flow of the play. Mills seemed to release him to the inside, expecting help from safety Ronald Martin, who had lined up deep and in the middle of the field.

By the time Howard caught McCarron's quick pass, Martin had flowed one step too far to Howard's side, effectively taking himself out of the play. Howard was by Martin before Martin could turn back and make a run at him.

Keep in mind, Howard went up against a cornerback and safety on that play. Imagine the damage he can do against linebackers.

Howard has caught 12 passes for 246 yards (20.5-yard average) and two touchdowns. He doesn't need to catch a lot of passes to do his damage … just one for a big-play touchdown or third-down conversion.

It'll be interesting to see how Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson accounts for him in the Tigers' 4-2-5 scheme, as well as covering the other threats Alabama poses.

Man-mover Prosch

Prosch moved lots of people with the heart-warming story of how he transferred from Illinois and suffered Auburn's 3-9 season of 2012 to be closer to his terminally ill mother.

He moves men on a football field with 258 pounds of muscle packed onto a 6-foot frame, and he keeps Auburn's offense moving by clearing paths for Mason and Marshall.

If you're watching the ball, you've missed him.

Prosch plays essentially the same H-back position Philip Lutzenkirchen played in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's offense. Whereas Lutzenkirchen was used a receiver who also blocks, Prosch is more of a pure blocker who catches a pass once every great while.

He has five catches for 95 yards and a touchdown, but, working in concert with Auburn's veteran offensive line, he's a big reason why the Tigers lead the SEC and rank second nationally in rushing offense.

Assuming Auburn's offensive line can hold its own against Alabama's three-man front and maybe pick off a linebacker or two, Prosch can seek out C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest or any other linebacker still in position to make a play on Marshall or Mason in the read option.

If Auburn is running the ball well against the SEC's top defense against the run (fourth nationally), assume that Prosch is having a good game.

Or just make a point to watch a good, selfless off-ball player do his thing.

Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, On Twitter @jmedley_star.

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