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O.J. Howard stands out in star-studded national title game


GLENDALE, Ariz. -- In a matchup featuring several top NFL prospects, it was three under-the-radar players who showed up big in Alabama's 45-40 national title victory Monday night over Clemson.

The stars did deliver; Clemson QB Deshaun Watson and Alabama RB Derrick Henry both put up monster numbers and made big plays. However, the game was won by three Alabama players who lacked name recognition.

» Alabama TE O.J. Howard was the biggest difference-maker for the Tide. After being used sparingly during the regular season, he came up with a couple huge plays against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. He took it to a whole new level against Clemson, capitalizing on some blown coverages, showing off his open-field speed, and racking up more than 200 receiving yards and two touchdowns. While he isn't known for his blocking, he delivered an excellent kick-out block on Derrick Henry's 50-yard touchdown run in the first half. He might not have a ton of college production, but his game translates beautifully to the NFL.

» Alabama RB/KR Kenyan Drake has overcome adversity at Alabama. However, he's shown tremendous toughness to battle through injuries and he ended his college career on a high note. He caught a couple balls out of the backfield, but he really made his mark on special teams. His 95-yard kickoff return for a score helped put the game away for the Tide. He is going to be an excellent value pick in the NFL draft because of his ability to help on third down as well as special teams. He has difference-making speed.

» Alabama'a defense is loaded with studs, but LB Reuben Foster was the clear standout defender in the championship game. Against the run, he made plays from sideline to sideline, and he was outstanding in pass coverage. His ability to mirror a speedy Clemson running back on a wheel route showed me all I needed to see about his athleticism. He finished the game with nine tackles, but it felt like he was in on a whole lot more.

Here are my notes on some other players in the game:

» Alabama RB Derrick Henry popped a couple long runs and ran very hard, but he does need room to operate. When his feet settle, the play is over. I think zone-scheme teams are going to have him rated high because of his one-cut style and speed/power.

» Clemson QB Deshaun Watson isn't draft eligible, but he made a strong impression with his play Monday night. This is a tape scouts will watch over and over again whenever he elects to pursue a pro career. He tore up a very gifted defense with precision throws from the pocket as well as creative playmaking outside the pocket. He is the real deal.

» Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander tried to play through a hamstring injury, but he didn't make it through the first half. In limited action, he showed instincts and a willingness to support the run. He wasn't challenged through the air. His evaluation is tricky because he has elite movement skills, but he doesn't have much production (no career interceptions).

» Clemson DE Kevin Dodd is a favorite of mine. He jumps off the tape when you study the Tigers' defense and he had a huge game tonight. He racked up three sacks and five tackles for loss. He has excellent first-step quickness and he can bend/wrap the edge. He also is adept at slipping blocks in the run game to create negative plays.

» Clemson DE Shaq Lawson showed toughness by playing on a left knee that was less than 100 perfect. He was missing some of his burst, but he racked up two effort sacks.

» Alabama DT Jarran Reed had another solid night. He was immovable at the point of attack, and his sideline tackle on a two-point conversion attempt late in the game was a beautiful display of effort and speed.

» Alabama LB Reggie Ragland didn't have a big game, but he still showed impressive stopping power as a tackler. When he makes contact, the play is immediately over.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

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