Is O.J. Howard the Bucs’ biggest treat? ‘I can be one of the best to ever do it.

Bucs tight end O.J. Howard had 26 catches for 432 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Bucs tight end O.J. Howard had 26 catches for 432 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published September 7 2018
Updated September 7 2018

TAMPA — The kids come running when they hear the ice cream truck bringing O.J.'s Frozen Treats.

Summers in Autaugaville, Ala., are hot and dirty, like the boiler room at International Paper where Kareem Howard used to work.

But now, each afternoon, he loads the freezer in one of two trucks with ice cream, popsicles, Blow Pops and other delicacies and drives on U.S. Route 82 to the ball fields and surrounding neighborhoods, selling a tasty way to beat the heat.

There's a Pavlovian response from children at the sound of the ice cream truck's symphony. Of course, there's more to the story than meets the ear.

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The O.J. in O.J.'s Frozen Treats is O.J. Howard, the former Alabama All-America tight end and the first-round pick of the Bucs just a little over a year ago.

Howard signed a four-year, $11. 1 million contract with more than $6.2 million guaranteed. But that is loose change for ice cream compared to what awaits him if he fulfills his promise in the NFL.

Howard's father Kareem, and his mother, Lamesa, run the business with two trucks together, traversing the roads of the mill town just 15 miles southeast is Montgomery.

"I just know it gets so hot in Alabama, there were a lot of days I wanted ice cream,'' Howard said. "They love doing it. They get a chance to interact with kids. Sometimes they work the truck together, sometimes if there's a big event, they may split up into two trucks.

Howard is quick to correct the suggestion that he has set his parents up with the business.

"They set themselves up,'' he said. "They worked years before that.''

Meanwhile, Howard is working to become one of the league's most dominant tight ends. If there is one player on the Bucs' offense who is most likely to have a breakout season, it may be Howard, who isn't afraid to predict great things this season and beyond.

"I think if I go out there and do what I'm trained to do, and that's the little things, and take it one play at a time, I think I can be one of the best to ever do it,'' Howard said. "That's my honest opinion. It's just about being consistent and going out on a daily basis and every game. From year one to year two, that's the biggest thing I've learned. It's about being consistent and doing everything the right way.

"I see myself going to Pro Bowls a lot. A couple. That's just the way I think it should be. I think if you don't play for that reason, you shouldn't be playing.  But it starts with practice, then when you get in the game, you've got to make your plays.''

At 6 feet 6, 242-pounds, with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, Howard should make a lot of plays this season for the Bucs, starting with Sunday's season opener at New Orleans.

He has worked hard to improve his game, particularly route running and reading defenses. He puts in the work. After practice, Howard plays catch with offensive coordinator Todd Monken, fields passes from the Jugs machine or runs extra routes for one of the Bucs' three quarterbacks.

"I think when you can read the defense, it allows you to play faster and allows you the way you're going to run your route before you do it,'' Howard said. "And stems (on the route) are everything. Getting an opponent to think you're going to run one way and going the other.

"I would just say my route running is what I've improved the most. That's something I could really get a mismatch on and be dominant. It's winning all of my one-on-one match ups. If I do that, I can be a dominant force in the passing game.''

The Washington Post recently analyzed the best offensive play from each NFL team. It's no surprise that the Bucs' best play was the tight end throwback that Howard scored three of his six touchdowns on as a rookie last season.

The quarterback fakes a hand off and runs the bootleg as Howard slips behind the crossing routes and frequently goes uncovered.

Howard finished last season with 26 catches for 432 yards and six touchdowns. Based on the improvement that some of the elite tight ends in the league have made between their first and second year, Howard could easily double that production in the pass game.

Howard has to look no further than his own team to see how much improvement he can make this season. In his first full season with the Bucs, tight end Cameron Brate caught 23 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. The next year, he had 57 receptions for 660 yards and eight TDs.

Of course, it's the plays he didn't make that Howard says he remembers most.

"I try to critique myself every day and take good coaching,'' Howard said. "I try to be very critical of myself because I feel like I have the potential to be the best."

Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick says Howard's growth will be a major key for the Bucs this season.

"I think overall it's the confidence in A, knowing what he's doing. But B, his ability as a pass catcher,'' Fitzpatrick said. "I thought he had a great off-season. We're expecting huge things from him this year and I know he's expecting huge things out of himself. I'm excited to see him continue to grow as a player. He's got to be a big-time player for us this year.''

Then Bucs fans can begin a cacophonous chant: You scream.  I scream. We all scream for O.J.''

Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud

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