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PIGSKIN PREVIEW: Tide’s ‘process’ seeks to continue producing championship results

August 17, 2016 GMT

HOOVER, Ala. – If there’s one football player on Alabama’s roster that is the definition of ‘the process’ head coach Nick Saban refers to so often, it would have to be senior tight end O.J. Howard.

Howard has been a work in progress since his freshman year. He finally realized his potential last season, catching 38 passes for 602 yards, including a breakout performance in the Tide’s 45-40 national championship victory over Clemson.

In that game, Howard had five catches for a career-high 208 yards and two touchdowns. His 208 yards were the most in a bowl game by a single player in Alabama history and were the most by any player in a national championship game.

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“The position has been about progression,” Howard said. “My sophomore year, I didn’t do a lot of blocking in the off-season, so that’s something I worked on with my coaches. For my junior year, we worked more on the running game. This season, I’m continuing to be a tight end.”

Expect Howard’s progression to continue throughout his senior year.

“He’s contributed to our team in a fantastic way,” Saban said of Howard at the SEC Media Days in Hoover in July. “It doesn’t always get recognized because it seems like it’s always recognized on how many big plays you make or how many passes you catch. He had several really big games for us. I think he’s definitely someone who is a threat and should be developed as a threat in our offense and should be used as such.”

Howard isn’t the lone offensive weapon returning to the Tide’s receiving arsenal. Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart are also expected to be featured prominently again in Alabama’s passing game, but for the third straight year, Alabama will have a new quarterback behind center.

Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett and David Cornwell are the top candidates battling it out for the starting position. Of the three, Bateman has a slight edge in experience. Last season, he completed 37-of-52 pass attempts for 291 yards and a touchdown as Jake Coker’s backup.

But Saban isn’t tipping his hand as to which signal caller will get the nod.

“Somebody’s got to win that job. Somebody’s got to win the team. That has not necessarily happened yet,” Saban said. “That’s something that’s going to happen probably in fall camp.”

Howard feels that each of the Tide quarterbacks is “doing a great job right now.”

“They’re running the plays. They’re being great leaders. There’s not one guy who stands out more than the other,” Howard said.

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The Tide also lacks veteran experience at the tailback positions. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake are now playing in the NFL. Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris return after seeing limited action last season.

The Tide has several starters returning to block for its playmakers, including left tackle Cam Robinson and Ross Pierschbacher.

Robinson, along with defensive back Hootie Jones, made news in the off-season after being arrested in Louisiana on a narcotics possession charge in May. The two players were not prosecuted.

Another Tide offensive lineman, Alphonse Taylor, was also arrested in Tuscaloosa in July on a DUI charge. Saban has said he is handling their punishment internally.

The Tide defense lost several of its playmakers from last season, but do return several starters.

Jonathan Allen returns to anchor the Tide’s defensive line. Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson give the Tide experience at linebacker. Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey return to the cornerback spots. Eddie Jackson will line up again at safety.

“We lost a lot of depth on defense, which will be a good challenge for us to replace, especially up front,” Saban said. “The diversity in players that we had on last year’s team was almost perfect for what you need in this day and age of football with the spread and the no-huddle. I’m not sure we have all those parts this year, but certainly we’re working to try to develop them.”

On special teams, the Tide returns kicker Adam Griffith and punter JK Scott. Griffith was perfect on extra points last season (62-of-62) and made 23-of-32 field goal attempts. Scott averaged 44.2 yards per punt last season.

Overall, Saban is pleased with how this year’s team has progressed through the off-season.

“We obviously lost some really, really good players from last year’s championship team, good leadership, good people, great team chemistry, all things that are intangibles that are difficult to build,” Saban said. “Our challenge is to recognize as they develop, because those things just don’t happen overnight. It’s a work in progress, and it’s certainly been the case with our team this year.”

“We have to establish ourselves,” Howard said. “Everyone is working hard and no one is complacent. New players have bought into ‘the process’ already, and the older guys are doing the right things. I think we’ll be fine this season.”