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Who could be this year’s O.J. Howard in the national championship game?

O.J. Howard
Matt Kartozian/USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s national championship game was a coming out party for Alabama tight end O.J. Howard. Before the game, the former five-star recruit hadn’t had a 100-yard receiving game in his collegiate career or even a touchdown catch since the LSU game during his freshman season in 2013.

But against Clemson, then-offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin found a way to get Howard open, finishing with five receptions, 208 yards and two touchdowns to earn the game’s offensive MVP honors.

Now with a rematch against Clemson slated for Monday night, the question becomes who again could have that type of game-changing performance for the Crimson Tide?

My answer: Gehrig Dieter.

Dieter, a graduate transfer from Bowling Green, has been quiet when it comes to receiving numbers this year – a huge difference from his season a year ago when he caught 94 passes for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns.

His role with Alabama, however, is much different. Though the numbers aren’t the same – Dieter has just 15 receptions for 214 yards and two touchdowns on the year – his presence on the field is as important as anyone’s. Dieter is a leader on the field. Just watch him in any game and his maturity is seen in many different examples.

RELATED: 35 of the 44 starters in title game were 4- or 5-star recruits

For example, Dieter is instrumental in making sure guys are lined up correctly before the ball is snapped. Dieter seems to know where everyone should be lined up. That’s a product of film study and knowing your assignment. Dieter has also shown his worth in his downfield blocking abilities, as he has been noticed more than once for having huge blocks while other receivers are making plays.

Now with Lane Kiffin gone and Steve Sarkisian in, Dieter’s senior presence and leadership will be more valuable than ever. Dieter has also had small moments in the past few games that have led to my belief in how critical he could actually be.

In the SEC championship game, Dieter had a touchdown catch in the second quarter that seemingly put the game out of reach in the eventual 54-16 victory over Florida. He also had a critical third-down catch early in the game against Washington that kept the drive alive. And even though quarterback Jalen Hurts unsuccessfully went back to Dieter on third down later in that same drive, it shows a pattern. Hurts trusts Dieter, and he should. And it’s why I think the receiver can have a monster game.

Clemson isn’t going to be surprised by the run game of Alabama. The Tigers have one of the best front sevens in college football. And after last week’s College Football Playoff semifinal win against Washington, Alabama will have to throw the ball effectively to win on Monday.

RELATED: Saban 12-1 in games with word ‘championship’ associated with them

So why is Dieter my dark horse on Monday night? It’s simple: He’s the off man out in a deep wide receiving corps.

With guys like Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard serving as the focal points of any secondary, Dieter is the odd man out. That’s not a knock on Dieter or his ability, but simply a numbers game.

If – and that’s a big if – Hurts can find Dieter in one-on-one matchups, I like Dieter’s chances a lot. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Clemson will put its best corners on Ridley and Stewart while eyeing Howard very closely as to not let him become an open threat like he was last year.

So then who is left to cover Dieter? The problem isn’t with Dieter’s ability to get open or even catch the ball – he had two drops against 94 catches last year – the problem lies with Alabama’s O-line giving Hurts enough time to read the defense and find the open man. Hurts has a knack for wanting to take off before he finishes those reads, so it will be important for his wide receivers to continue to fight their way open when Hurts takes off.

If what I’ve seen is more than just a trend, we could be seeing a lot of Hurts to Dieter on Monday. Either way, Dieter will find a way to make his presence known in the biggest game of his career. It’s why he came to Alabama in the first place. Whether it be making sure guys are lined up correctly or blocking downfield, Dieter will make plays. But don’t be surprised if those plays are game changing.

RELATED: Steve Sarkisian has returned to center stage in advance of Monday’s national championship game

(You can follow Justin Nails on Twitter @JustinNails)

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