Former offensive coordinator and position coach Shannon Dawson noticed it immediately, offering Howard a scholarship when all major conference schools passed on the chance. It’s not his size, or his arm strength or accuracy, or even his most noted aspect of the arsenal, the scrambling, extend-the-play ability. It’s more a feel of a trust in his own self that resonates as conviction, something that seems to bleed into all else and give conviction-like status to the belief he is a major collegiate quarterback.
All the trappings seem to indicate such, from the starter’s job at a Power Five school to the proven performances against Kansas State and Iowa State to end the regular season. Howard got a split during those games, though WVU outscored each team while he was in the game, the then-sophomore rallying the Mountaineers from down 20-7 against KSU to within 26-20 at game’s end after starter Clint Trickett went down with the last of his five concussions in 14 months.
Howard would end the year besting Iowa State 37-24 via a 14-point comeback, then finish with a mildly disappointing performance in the Liberty Bowl – if 346 yards and three scores can be labeled as such – where he would overshoot on multiple open targets in the defeat. It was there that his escapability became not a secondary weapon, but the prime one in the deep recesses of his mind. There was that imaginary count – real enough to Howard – going off in his subconscious that foretold of pockets collapsed and outside pressure closing.
Upon film review, however, that was determined not to be the case. Ghosts, real or imagined, can infiltrate the mind’s eye, and that’s really the balancing act Howard faces this season. To become a high level quarterback, Howard has to remain in the pocket longer, and let the broken plays come to him instead of forcing the play into becoming broken, and playing a version more applicable to the backyard game. And that ideal’s not necessarily a natural part of his make-up.
“More of a feel,” said Howard when asked to describe his lean toward polished or instinctive. “I’ve always had a pretty good feel for when to scramble. Moving to the next level made me a bit antsy. That’s one thing I am focusing on is staying calm and staying in the pocket and going through my reads. It gets better every day.”
The 6-0, 200-pounder plays bigger, in confidence, in stature, in self-assurance, than what one might expect. Credit the chip on his shoulder or simply the Texan in him, but the Fort Worth native has performed bigger than offers from Northern Colorado, New Mexico State and San Jose State might have led one to assume. It’s a legit argument to believe Howard deserved better than his 1-2 mark over the final three games, 1-1 if only games started count.
“When you are going through and learning an offense, you go through things,” Howard said. “Mentally, it’s staying in film rooms, and continuing to stay consistent. Physically, staying calm in the pocket and progression. That’s really all that I am focusing on right now. (Because) even in the bowl game, I was antsy. I’ve inched up in the pocket too quick. Going back and watching the film, I was moving around a lot. In the spring I was moving around.
“But watching the film from (Thursday) it’s much better. I have the offense down and I have the rapport with the guys. So it’s staying calm. I’m not inching up in the pocket as much. It’s staying back and surveying the field.”
It’s that nanosecond of patience that will make him truly a passer, instead of a scrambling thrower. There’s always going to be that improperly applied gunslinger label until it happens. But Howard’s not that at all. He’s the antitheses of a gunslinger, what with no interceptions in 110 attempts for 829 yards and eight touchdowns. Howard isn’t forcing throws into tight windows, tossing balls into double coverage deep down the sidelines. If anything, he’s conservative in that approach. He protects the ball, and he plays with a high level IQ and understanding of situation and setting.
He’s overthrowing because that’s far better than underthrowing. And because he moves too early in the play progression, and the sequence breaks down prior to full development. Fix that area – and it appears that’s exactly what’s happening – and that superb feel will move even more to the forefront of his performance. As the adage goes, don’t fall under the ready-fire! syndrome, but don’t get stuck with ready aim-aim-aim, either.