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Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron stands as the only signal-caller that has seen tight end O.J. Howard reached the end zone. All LSU’s defensive backs could do was gasp for air as the 6-foot-6, 237-pound freshman tight end went on a 52-yard burst to the painted grass.

Two years have passed since that moment inside Bryant-Denny Stadium, and though a reunion seems uncertain, it must happen for Howard’s confidence moving forward. A native of Prattville, Ala., Howard ended 2013 with 14 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns.

Frustration would be the ideal term to use in describing Howard’s sophomore year under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Ex-Crimson Tide wide out Amari Cooper said Kiffin’s system was “player friendly,” yet for Howard, he was doing more blocking than receiving.

His performance against Mississippi last season was both good and bad.

He caught three passes for 81 yards, but was flagged for a couple of penalties and did not fight Rebels’ defensive back Senquez Golson for the ball on the final play. Somehow, LSU made its way back on Alabama’s schedule, allowing Howard a chance to prove himself.

He totaled 21 yards on three receptions and was instrumental in the fourth quarter, catching two passes for 12 yards on the team’s scoring drive. Howard would average 15.3 yards per catch and total 260 receiving yards on 17 grabs; however, he had no touchdown to show for it. Now a junior, Howard has yet to see the end zone but his numbers have improved.

He has brought 16 passes for 200 yards through six games.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban has stated the importance of having Howard become a full packaged player. His run blocking has improved some this season, after being an eyesore in 2014. The first six games have been okay, but if Howard wants to pursue the NFL Draft, he must emerge down the stretch. Quarterback Jacob Coker is limited in his mobility.

Howard has to help him out by making plays in space, boxing out in jump-ball situations and scoring in the red zone. He is the fourth-best tight end heading into the 2016 NFL Draft, according to ESPN’s Todd McShay. He has played in 47 career games, posting 47 catches for 729 yards and two touchdowns.

It was against Texas A&M in 2013 that propelled Howard forward. He collected three receptions for 68 yards, with all catches resulting in first downs.

Coker is Howard’s third quarterback in three seasons, but there comes a point when one has to be aggressive in their approach. Saturday is a chance for Howard to start over.

A push to the finish line starts at Kyle Field.

Stephen M. Smith is a senior analyst and columnist for Touchdown Alabama MagazineYou can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @ESPN_Future.

Stephen Smith is a 2015 graduate of the University of Alabama. He is a senior writer and reporter for Touchdown Alabama Magazine. He has covered Alabama football for 15 years and his knowledge and coverage of the Crimson Tide's program have made him among the most respected journalist in his field. Smith has been featured on ESPN and several other marquee outlets as an analyst.

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