TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- If one wants a glimpse of the potential Alabama tight end O.J. Howard possesses, look no further than his touchdown run against LSU last season.
With the Crimson Tide trailing 7-3, Howard was split out wide. He ran a slant route across the middle, caught the pass and blew past LSU's secondary for a 52-yard touchdown.
"I caught the ball and I saw a seam and I was like, 'I'm running full-speed no matter what,' " Howard said. "And those guys didn't think I was going to be that fast because I was a tight end. They were like jogging and when they tried to speed up it was too late, so I kind of shocked them a little bit."
Howard said LSU's defenders could do nothing but congratulate him following the play. But just like that, Howard seemingly disappeared from Alabama's game plan. He finished the year with 14 receptions for 269 yards and two touchdowns.
It's unknown why Howard wasn't targeted down the stretch, but following the LSU game, he caught just three passes in the final four games of the season.
Did Howard feel like he was underutilized?
"Oh no, not at all. I was just coming in," Howard said. "I really didn't know how to block as well as I'm learning to block now. I played my role and I did what the team needed."
Becoming a more effective blocker is the next step in Howard's development. Before Alabama, Howard didn't have to block much at Autauga Academy as he mostly played wide receiver, quarterback and defensive end. Howard said learning how to block is more about technique than strength. It's been his main focus this spring.
"I've been working on that every day with (tight end) coach (Bobby) Williams," Howard said. "Every day I'm getting better at blocking. Brian (Vogler), he's a really good blocker so I learn some things from him also. He's teaching me some things and I'm taking it right away."
While Tide coach Nick Saban is pleased with Howard's playmaking ability, Saban wants more from his sophomore tight end.
"O.J. is a very talented guy," Saban said. "I think he needs to continue to improve in some of those areas because he's a great pass-receiver, but we continue to work with him and try to improve him as a blocker and get him to pay attention to detail and the importance of that part of the game as well."
Howard said he's a different player compared to the one who enrolled at Alabama last spring.
"Playing fast. It seemed like last year I was a new guy," Howard said. "I was kind of like not playing fast because I didn't really know what to do yet. Right now I know what to do. If you know what to do, you're going to play really fast and it makes your game a lot easier."
No stats were provided for Howard in following the Tide's first scrimmage, but he caught three passes for 38 yards in the second scrimmage.
"He looks great. Just where he left off from last season," said senior tight end Brian Vogler (Brookstone) said. "He's a fast guy, picks up stuff really well so learning this new offense is coming really well to him."
Still, while improving as a blocker is paramount, Howard's biggest asset is his ability to catch and run with the football. Howard said he's noticed the changes new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has made to offense. He called Kiffin's system "tight end friendly."
"It's like getting our athletes in space and showing off our ability," Howard said. "We have a lot of speed on the offensive side of the ball. It's going to really help our athletic ability and show it off for us."