When it comes to Nick Saban’s accomplishments, he’s already in rare air in just about every way imaginable. From repetitive No. 1 recruiting classes to national championships, he’s redefining the standards by which every future college football coach will be judged.
O.J. Howard has a chance to give him another milestone.
Heading into this season, Saban had a player named an All-American at every position minus one, and nearly all had been at the University of Alabama.
That position, of course, was tight end, and the Crimson Tide head coach might never again have this good of a chance to complete the set.
After becoming the first player to have a 200-yard receiving performance in a BCS or College Football Playoff National Championship Game, Howard decided not to leave early for the National Football League and to return for his final season of eligibility. His to-do list as a senior included improving his blocking, being a bigger part of the passing game as a playmaker and earning his degree.
He’s become a better blocker, which has helped the Crimson Tide become more of a run-oriented team this season. Heading into the bye week, Alabama is ninth nationally in rushing with 268.4 yards per game, up from last year’s 199.9, when it had Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry.
“I know lots of people equate it on how many passes you catch if you’re a tight end,” Saban said. “But the guy does so many things for us offensively. He’s a good blocker, blocks on the perimeter very well.”
Nevertheless, Howard was Alabama’s leading receiver against Texas A&M on Saturday, with a career-high eight catches, including a five-yard touchdown.
Developing the necessary timing with true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has been a work in progress, as Howard only has 22 receptions for 278 yards and two touchdowns, but the performance may be indicative of his having a larger role in the passing game down the stretch.
“I’m just trying to master my game and be as good of a tight end as I can be,” Howard said, adding that he wants to be a bigger “force” on the field.
In the meantime, Crimson Tide fans can stump just about everyone with the difficult trivia question.
“It’s got to be kicker, right?” said Matt Hayes, the former senior college football writer for Sporting News, when asked which position Saban was missing.
For years, Hayes’ responsibilities included overseeing the selection of the outlet’s All-American team, which carried some extra weight. Since 1993 (and from 1934 to ’63), Sporting News has been one of the services the NCAA has used to determine consensus and unanimous status for its football All-American teams.
Currently, there are four others: the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, the Walter Camp Foundation and the American Football Coaches Association.
For consistency’s sake, they’re the only ones used for this story, and just during the years the coaches were at their schools—so players Saban recruited to Michigan State and LSU who became All-Americans after he left aren’t here.
Additionally, only being a first-team selection counts. The term “All-American” means that one of the five major services selected a player, and a majority translates to consensus status.
As such, when it comes to recent All-American teams, there may be no better expert than Hayes, who was surprised by the statistic that primarily comes from Saban’s years at Alabama.
“Especially in such a short time,” he said. “You’re talking nine seasons, right? Wow.”
Only one coach during the modern era of college football has had an All-American named at every position: Florida State’s Bobby Bowden. And he had the advantage of time on his side. From 1976 to 2009, he could fill nearly every spot with the Seminoles’ consensus selections alone, missing just a punter and a tight end.
Punter Rohn Stark was a non-consensus selection in 1981, as was tight end Pat Carter in 1987 (note: The NCAA doesn’t list consensus All-American kick and punt returners before 1997, but Sporting News named Tamarick Vanover an All-American in 1992).
Saban did once recruit a tight end who became both a consensus All-American and a first-round NFL draft selection, but at a different position.
It was 2001, and Marcus Spears was a freshman in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, after headlining an impressive recruiting class as the nation’s No. 3 overall prospect, according to SuperPrep magazine. He was considered a can’t-miss player and was even named to the freshman All-SEC team as a tight end.
Consequently, he was reluctant to switch positions full-time after playing on both sides of the ball during his initial campaign. Spears was upset at the coaching staff for moving him full-time to defense. His ire lasted about a week.
“You realize that it’s happened with 50 players before me, who had great careers, and it’ll happen afterward,” said Spears, who would also occasionally line up at fullback and was a top basketball prospect as well.
“You have to do something to have respect, and his word goes a long way, because usually the examples that he’s given you are examples that have worked out,” he said.
While Saban has had some incredible success with players who have switched positions—LSU’s Michael Clayton (S to WR), Corey Webster (QB to CB) and Josh Reed (RB to WR) among them—Spears could only laugh when he learned that his old position is the only one at which Saban has yet to have an All-American.
Otherwise, Saban might have already reached the milestone. Spears and Colin Peek, who was an Academic All-American at Alabama in 2009, have probably been the closest he’s come at tight end.
“He’s a great coach because he’s a player-developer,” Spears said.
Although All-American selections date back to 1889, there weren‘t NCAA offensive and defensive designations until 1965, with the evolution of the platoon system making it so players no longer had to play on both sides of the ball. Regardless, there have been only a dozen other coaches who have had more than 22 players named consensus All-Americans over the years.
Saban had just four consensus All-Americans before he arrived at Alabama (LSU’s Chad Lavalais, Reed, Spears and Ben Wilkerson) but numerous non-consensus selections.
He’s now up to 29 consensus selections overall—Terrence Cody, Barrett Jones and C.J. Mosley all had two selections apiece—and has averaged 2.8 per season while winning four national titles with the Crimson Tide. His average would get a significant bump if one factored in non-consensus selections such as quarterback AJ McCarron, punter JK Scott and kicker Leigh Tiffin.
Only three coaches have had more consensus All-Americans: Joe Paterno with 33 over 46 years, Bowden with 31 over 40 years and Tom Osborne with 30 during his 25 seasons.
Depending on how Alabama finishes, it’s conceivable that Saban could move ahead of all of them this year. Phil Steele’s College Football Preview had six Alabama players on its preseason All-American team, seven if you include long snapper Cole Mazza.
One of them was Howard. He was also named preseason first-team All-SEC by both the media and coaches, ahead of the player who might be his toughest competition: Evan Engram of Ole Miss, who has been Chad Kelly’s top target so far with 40 catches for 605 yards and five touchdowns.
Last year, league coaches voted Engram second-team All-SEC behind Arkansas’ Hunter Henry, who landed All-American status and was the first tight end selected in the 2016 NFL draft (No. 35 overall).
Seeing Howard be so productive in the title game against Clemson might have helped inspire the Ole Miss coaching staff some. Howard had 53- and 51-yard touchdowns en route to 208 receiving yards, leaving Saban to say afterward that Alabama hadn’t used him enough during the regular season. The Rebels have been saying something similar.
“He had a great game,” Engram said about Howard. “It’s definitely good to see a fellow tight end get some love on the big stage. Part of me wishes I was out there doing that.”
Howard finished his junior year with 38 receptions for 602 yards. Although he had the advantage of playing in 15 games, his numbers weren’t out of line from the last five consensus All-American tight ends.
Engram leads all tight ends in receiving yards this season, followed by Gerald Everett of South Alabama (34 catches, 567 yards), Adam Breneman of Massachusetts (44/484), Tyler Conklin of Central Michigan (30/429) and Blake Mack of Arkansas State (24/428). All but Conklin are considered the primary receivers on their teams. Howard isn’t, but he probably has to match his stats from 2015 to show overall improvement.
Some of the other names to keep in mind are Michigan’s Jake Butt (26/310), Clemson’s Jordan Leggett (15/232) and Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges (25/323), who all have strong reputations.
That can go a long way at awards time, although four of the last eight winners of the John Mackey Award for best tight end were from schools now playing in the Southeastern Conference (Henry in 2015, Arkansas’ D.J. Williams in 2010, Florida’s Aaron Hernandez in 2009 and Missouri’s Chase Coffman in 2008).
This year’s midseason watchlist featured six SEC players, the most of any league, including the senior from Alabama.
Perhaps that’s partly what Howard was referring to when he said he had unfinished business after deciding to hold off on the NFL draft until 2017.
“O.J. Howard’s played great for us this year,” Saban said.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer and the author of 24 books, including Nick Saban vs. College Football. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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