Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie O.J. Howard may have seen more NFL action on his game console than the television over the past four years. Howard, an Alabama grad, admits to being a "Madden guy" and was reasonably excited to have one of the highest player ratings for rookies in this year's game. As for catching the real thing on Sundays, he says there often wasn't time during fall in Tuscaloosa.
"We never had time in college, honestly, at my school," said Howard on Thursday as his veteran teammates reported for the start of training camp. "We had something to do every day; even on Sundays we had to go in and report. So I never got a chance to really watch football except on Thursday nights. I didn't have a favorite team. I would just turn on the TV and watch football. I wasn't really looking at the Xs and Os as much. So not really a lot, I didn't watch a lot of pro football."
WATCH: THURSDAY'S PRESS CONFERENCES
Well, Howard's got the time now. The NFL is now his vocation and over the next three weeks in particular – roughly the length of training camp – he's going to be eating, sleeping and drinking football. And practicing it a lot, too.
That's good because Howard has already learned a very important lesson about the NFL: Success is in the details. He's obviously athletically gifted, as his draft status indicates. Taken 19th overall, he was the first tight end ever selected in the first round by the Buccaneers, and something of a gift; most analysts pegged him as a likely top-10 pick. But Howard knows that he can't succeed on his talents alone. It's drilling down on the small details that will allow him to unlock his potential.
"I would say just always doing the little things right as a pro, as far as studying the little details," said Howard of his planned emphasis for his first training camp. "The route-running, run-blocking in the run games – I think the little things can add up to be a positive or, vice versa, they can add up to be a big negative. I think the little things are the most important thing that I've noticed so far."
Fortunately, the rookie and his new quarterback, Jameis Winston, supplemented their offseason work at One Buccaneer Place with some additional get-togethers away from the facility, in an attempt to establish a connection quickly. Looking for more explosive plays this year, the Buccaneers hope to feature their talented new tight end as quickly as possible. Howard wants to make sure that Winston has a good feel for his game, and vice versa.
"It's about ball placement," said Howard. "When we go down to the end zone, he wants to see how high I can jump to see how high he can put the ball. It's all kinds of things, [like] timing. There's a lot of detail to route-running. He needs to know when I'm going to break on certain routes."
The Buccaneers head into camp focused on taking the next step to the playoffs in 2017 after last year's 9-7 finish. More specifically, they are focused on getting ready for the Miami Dolphins on September 10. Howard's attention to the details of his profession, however, will hopefully pay dividends well beyond his rookie year. Last year, with his eventual leap to the NFL becoming obvious, he began studying former pro standouts at his position and he thinks he knows why some of them had such long careers.
"[I studied] guys such as Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten," said Howard. "Those are guys that, even as they got older, they were still really dominant as tight ends, and that's because of their techniques and the way they ran their routes. The little things. I study guys like that to see what makes them stay in the game for so long."
Even if he didn't watch a lot of NFL games on Sundays the past four years, Howard understand right away how strong the competition would be when he got to One Buccaneer Place. It's like the toughest weeks at Alabama, week after week. That only adds to his motivation to get the details right in order to gain an edge on his opponents.
"I would say mostly, [it's] just learning the little things," said Howard. "In the NFL, everybody is really good. Like Coach said earlier, it's like the Alabama-LSU matchup every day. That's exactly what it is – it's an SEC game every day for me. There are no non-conference games. Everybody's good, you have to have great technique and know it's more mental than anything."