Throughout the draft process, offensive skill position players are all, to some degree, evaluated on their blocking ability. For these players, blocking is often considered a secondary trait, one that’s often underdeveloped when they enter the NFL, especially with more spread-based college offenses in today’s game. Even in the evaluation of tight ends, who have historically, and still do, play a large role in the running game, most evaluators just want to see effort. If the effort is there, the thought is that the play strength and technique can be developed over time with good enough coaching. For former Alabama Crimson Tide star O.J. Howard, however, there is way more than just effort. In a tight end class filled with athletic playmakers, it is Howard’s blocking that separates him from the pack.
Howard wasn’t often asked to stay inside in pass protection because of his abilities as a receiver in space, but when he did stay in to protect the quarterback, he excelled. In the first play, which came early in the game versus Kent State, Howard (#88) lines up on the left wing and is left one-on-one with Terence Waugh (#51).
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At the snap, Waugh takes an inside path trying to split Howard and Alabama left tackle, Cam Robinson (#74). In response, Howard shows good balance, shuffling his feet inside with the defender, and engages him with good pad level and hand placement into the torso halting his momentum. The defender then spins and counters back outside, but Howard is able to patiently mirror and keep him from the quarterback.
The impressive part of this block was Howard’s ability to remain so patient, shuffle back and forth without crossing his feet, and engage the defender while keeping his legs underneath him. Most tight ends panic with movement and try too hard to engage the defender with their hands without keeping their feet underneath them. This results in them getting overextended and tossed to the ground by the defender. For Howard to display this level of patience and balance is very impressive.
The next play is very similar and came later in the first quarter of the same game. He is again lined up on the wing, this time on the right side, and comes across the formation after the snap to assist Robinson, who was on an island with Waugh.
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As he gets across the formation, Waugh has beaten Robinson to the edge and is turning the corner toward quarterback Jalen Hurts (#2) and already has a good angle on Howard as well. Howard again displays excellent patience, calmly shuffling outside to meet the defender at the top of his arc and riding him beyond the pocket as Hurts steps up in the pocket to avoid the pressure.
Again, Howard demonstrated excellent patience with his feet and hands. If he panicked and ran right to the defender as he won the edge, Howard probably wouldn’t have been able to get the proper angle. He went to where he knew the defender was going, not to where he was. By shuffling up the arc, he also widens the defender’s path to the quarterback and saves Hurts from a potentially big hit.
Inside the Box
In addition to his pass blocking ability, Howard was used extensively as a blocker in the Alabama run game. He was asked to block the front and backside of both zone- and gap- concept runs from the line of scrimmage. He was also used as a lead blocker from the wing on power runs and the slice blocker on split-zone concepts. In addition, he was often asked to get out in space and seal the alley or get on top of and drive perimeter defenders downfield on sweeps or quick wide receiver screens.
The next two plays both come from the Auburn game and highlight some of Howard’s versatility in the running game. The first play came late in the first quarter with Howard lined up in a wing alignment just between the left tackle and tight end on the line of scrimmage. At the snap, he comes across the formation as a lead blocker on a quarterback counter read play and, follows the pulling guard who kicks out the defensive end. He then turns upfield, finds LB Tre’ Williams (#30) waiting, lowers his shoulder and knocks him back and out of the play.
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The important thing to highlight on this play is Howard’s aggression on the second level. In this situation, most tight ends or H-backs just try to get upfield and seal off the linebacker with their body angle. Howard takes it to the defender and displays this aggression on a consistent basis. The one thing that you would like to see him do here that he didn’t do, was get his hands into the defender’s body, roll his hips, and drive him out of the play. Instead, he takes him on with his shoulder, which gives the defender an easier path around his block and could allow him to avoid it all together. This was something Howard did often when taking on bigger defenders, which is not ideal. This is a minor flaw, though, that NFL coaches would be happy to take on given the consistent aggression and effort he shows as a blocker.
This next play is a great example of Howard’s play strength and ability to gain leverage on defenders. It is toward the end of the second half and the Crimson Tide run an inside zone play on 2nd and 1, with Howard lined up on the line of scrimmage on the backside of the play. Howard’s job here is only to seal off the backside of the play and keep the DE Marlon Davidson (#3) from pursuing and making a tackle from behind the play. To do this, Howard is going to try and quickly establish inside leverage to turn the end to the outside. When the ball is snapped, however, Davidson rushes inside and jolts Howard backwards off the ball. However, the tight end does a great job not giving up on the play and turns things around.
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Howard does an excellent job kicking his legs out, establishing his anchor, and repositioning his hands inside the defender’s chest, winning leverage and driving him back off the ball. There is nothing fancy about this play., It ‘s just a good example of Howard’s ability to consistently establish leverage at the point of attack.
Out in Space
On its face, seeing a 6’5, 250-pound player engaging a much smaller defender looks like an easy task, but is actually much harder than it looks. The natural inclination as a blocker in space is to get right up to and engage the defender and drive him out of the play. Due to their athletic ability and space to maneuver, however, a secondary or space defender can easily make an over-zealous blocker miss and look silly. If you pay attention to offensive linemen or tight ends pulling around the edge and getting out in space, many will approach their target slowly. They do this to stay under control and provide themselves with the ability to react to sudden movements by the defender so that the defender doesn’t dip out and leave them overextended and falling forward. Howard, however, just like in the pass protection examples, has such good balance and body control to keep his feet underneath him that he doesn’t need to slow down when approaching his blocks. The ability to get up and lock onto his targets so quickly gives the defender less time to react or to take a leverage on the play to funnel the ball carrier into the rest of the defense.
The next example shows the same exact play run on consecutive downs in the Kent State matchup. Watch as, on both plays, Howard comes across the formation from the wing as the lead blocker on the quarterback zone read keeper. Pay attention to how quickly, yet under control, he gets upfield and onto the defender driving him out of the play.
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On the second play, the same defender (Tre’ Williams) decides he wants no part of Howard and goes low. Howard, again fully in control of his body, drops with him to protect himself while still covering up the defender and making sure that he wasn’t able to reach out and trip the quarterback as he ran by for the touchdown.
In the final play, Howard is lined up again on the line of scrimmage early in the Auburn game. ArDarius Stewart (#13) goes in motion from the backside and takes the handoff on the jet sweep. Watch as Howard gets off the line and takes a great angle upfield to LB Darrell Williams (#49), turning him inside to seal off the alley for Stewart to turn up field and run.
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This play is all about the angle that Howard took to get up to the linebacker. Just like the pass protection example above where he shuffled to the top of the arc, he took that angle that would take him to where the linebacker was going and not where Williams was at the snap. This seems like a simple concept, but is harder than it appears. Linebackers, especially at the next level, are good athletes and often are able to shift outside with motion to get a head start, so beating them to a spot is not easy. In addition, if Howard gets to the spot too quickly and isn’t able to come to balance to actually make the block, the defender can easily slip right under him. Like the others, this is just another example of how Howard uses his perfect balance of athleticism, patience, and body control to dominate as a blocker.
In watching Howard’s film, it becomes evident very quickly that he is a rare talent as a blocker. He consistently shows good effort, aggression, play strength, and, most importantly, technique. In addition to that, he provides great flexibility to an offense and can be utilized as a blocker all over the formation and execute in myriad ways. This is all saying nothing about his overall athletic ability and talents as a receiver. When you combine the two, it becomes eye-opening as to just how rare and complete of a college prospect Howard really is.
To get the full scouting report on O.J. Howard, as well as the other top 100 prospects in this year’s draft, be sure to get a copy of Inside the Pylon’s first ever draft guide. Available at ITPdraftguide.com.