CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Bug Howard says opposing defenses don’t respect his ability, but the senior receiver isn’t complaining.
UNC’s 6-foot-5 target has had a monstrous past month – he’s averaging six catches and 109.3 receiving yards per game over UNC’s last four games. Howard says that if teams don’t want to pay attention to him, then he’ll just continue to produce.
“A lot of the catches I’ve had this year, it seems like cornerbacks just drop me,” Howard said after UNC’s 48-20 win over Georgia Tech two weeks ago. “I don’t know if they think I’m just not that good. They end up dropping coverage and I just get behind them and I’m right there.”
Howard’s recent surge had to come at the expense of fallen teammate and fellow senior receiver Mack Hollins. Hollins's season ended after a broken collarbone sustained during the first half of UNC’s 20-13 win against Miami in October.
Since Hollins went down, Howard has stepped up and his contribution to the offensive success of the Tar Heels has been invaluable. The Georgia-native even started to wear the No.13 jersey in honor of his fellow teammate.
Junior running back Elijah Hood says donning Hollins’s number has brought out a side of Howard’s game that he’s never seen, as if he was playing for the both of them.
“I think his mindset is since Mack left to try and work as hard as possible and to keep grinding,” Hood said. “He’s trying to represent for both him and Mack. It gives him something that he didn’t have before and he’s been playing lights out since.”
“He goes down the field and makes a giant leaping catch and I’m thinking that basically it’s both Mack and Bug out there.”
Offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic says that Howard has put a lot of pressure on himself without Hollins.
“I think he’s probably getting a few more opportunities because of Mack’s absence, but I think he’s done a tremendous job of, when the ball’s coming to him, making the plays,” Kapilovic said after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s made some competitive catches here in the last three or four games… I think he felt like he truly needs to step up in Mack’s absence.”
While Hollins’s absence is a key contributor to Howard’s success, it’s also worth noting the impact that senior receiver Ryan Switzer has had on the volume of passes coming his way. Switzer has caught a team-high 74 passes this season and has started to command a large defensive presence in the middle of the field.
According to Switzer, it’s not that opposing defenses don’t think Howard isn’t worth their time, they are just too preoccupied with covering him.
“Throughout the majority of the year I’ve drawn a lot of double teams,” Switzer said. “I drew a lot of bracket coverage against Miami, Virginia, especially against Georgia Tech, and that frees up Bug for some one-on-one coverage. Obviously it went well for Bug, actually over the past three weeks Bug’s had some pretty big breakout games. If they continue to do that other guys will be open.”
UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky agrees with Switzer, and doesn’t mind offloading the ball to Howard if he’s going to continue to get one-on-one coverage downfield.
“I don’t know, maybe defenses have been keying in on other receivers and that’s what has opened up him, but he’s worked his butt off in practice and getting open on Saturdays,” Trubisky said.
Another reason Howard may continue to be overlooked? He’s too busy worrying about things that don’t show up in the statbook, according to Hood.
“He’s been practicing and working and it’s translated to game day,” Hood said. “It’s not just getting the ball, either. It’s the blocks, playing without the ball, he’s doing everything right."
While Howard and the Tar Heels stumbled against Duke, 28-27, the senior receiver still caught a touchdown pass in the first quarter to extend his TD streak to three games. He has 437 yards reception on 26 catches, including three touchdowns, in the last four games.
Howard will look to continue his success on Saturday against FCS-opponent The Citadel, which has yet to face a receiver of his size and caliber this season.