Expectations have never been Skyler Howard’s primary motivation.
He was the little quarterback who could as the classic motivation book goes. He threw 13 touchdowns and ran for eight more his senior year on a little White Settlement Brewer team that didn’t make the playoffs in the three years he played. The expectation was that he’d go to college after high school for his own good; for his own education.
“When we were doing all the things we do to promote our kids, I told everyone who would listen that [Howard] was a D-I level recruit,” said Paul Sharr, Howard’s coach at Brewer who now coaches at Wichita Falls. “But I had several college coaches tell me he didn’t pass ‘the eye test.’”
After graduating early with zero college offers, Division I or Division II, Howard enrolled at Stephen F. Austin in the spring of 2013 and became a walk-on player on the football team while his friends at Brewer were planning for the prom. When a constant shuffle back and forth from quarterback to running back wasn’t working out, the expectation was that his football playing days were over.
When he found his way onto a junior college roster in Riverside, Calif., in the fall, the expectation was that Howard would be Riverside City College’s backup. That’s when his penchant for defying outside expectations produced its first meaningful turn in Howard’s football career, and now, after three seasons at West Virginia, the unsung Fort Worth native is at the NFL’s doorstep, knocking.
“I knew I was going to play in college, whether I had offers or not,” Howard said in an interview last month at Fort Worth’s APEC performance training facility, where he’s been training since late January. “I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know the winding road would take me to West Virginia and I’d come full circle to train for the draft in my own back yard.”
Howard exudes a similar matter-of-fact confidence regarding his pro prospects and will take part in West Virginia’s Pro Day workouts Friday morning at the Caperton Indoor Facility. Despite his 6-foot frame, there will be NFL teams there to give him a look before the NFL Draft starts on April 27.
But, first, back to Riverside City.
After arriving on campus in June and failing to win the starting job before the start of his freshman year, Howard began to wonder if it was all worth it.
“I’m all the way out here in California. Why am I playing ball out here?” Howard asked himself. “I have no money. This is pretty much just a second chance to play backup quarterback at a junior college.”
But in the first game of the 2013 season, Riverside found itself down 28-17 at halftime to Ventura. Coach Tom Kraft looked Howard’s way and said, “It’s your turn to go.”
And from there, stock in Skyler Howard made a precipitous rise. Howard engineered a 42-point second half on offense, Riverside won 59-41, and both started rolling. By the end of his freshman year, Howard had rolled up 3,151 yards 33 touchdowns while completing 67.4 percent of his pass attempts with six interceptions.
Riverside went 10-2 and won its conference in Howard’s only year on campus, and, finally, the waves of Division I offers started rolling in.
“I got a call, and on the other end the voice said, ‘this is [West Virginia coach] Dana Holgorsen.’ I hung up on him, because my coaches and I used to prank call each other pretending to be college coaches,” Sharr said. “When he called me back, I realized it was him, and he asked me to tell him about [Howard’s] character.”
Sharr could go on for days about Howard’s character. On several occasions, Sharr had to kick Howard out of the Brewer coaches’ offices, because all Howard wanted to do was watch film.
That call from Holgorsen was part of the home stretch on a journey that took Howard across the country in both directions looking for a place to play quarterback. Most of the interest in Howard came from Pac 12 schools, and West Virginia was the only Big 12 team to offer Howard a scholarship.
“The only thing that was going to keep me from going to West Virginia was if TCU came knocking on the door, which obviously never happened,” Howard said.
The Horned Frogs took four quarterbacks in its 2014 recruiting class: Foster Sawyer, Grayson Muehlstein, Bram Kohlhausen, who played in the same juco conference as Howard at Los Angeles Harbor College, and Keaton Perry. Kohlhausen, who was the hero of the 2016 Alamo Bowl comeback, and Sawyer saw limited time behind center with the Horned Frogs, and Muehlstein will be a redshirt junior this fall.
So Howard signed with WVU and enrolled in January of 2014. The opportunity to suit up for Big 12 football wasn’t lost on Howard, but he was still behind Clint Trickett, the incumbent at West Virginia, going into the 2014 season.
Like every backup should, he stayed ready.
When Trickett, who transferred to West Virginia from Florida State after his sophomore year, went down with an injury against Kansas State, Howard stepped in once again. He threw six touchdowns in his first two starts in a West Virginia uniform, including three against Texas A&M in the 2014 Liberty Bowl.
The next two-plus years were Howard’s time. He went from scout team player of the week in his first week of practice in the spring to player of the game the final week of the 2014 season, after throwing for 285 yards and three touchdowns in a comeback win at Iowa State.
“You have to appreciate a guy who’s like that,” TCU coach Gary Patterson said of Howard’s circuitous route to the Big 12. “He’s not a guy you’re going to win because of, but you can win with him. He gets the ball to the guys around him. I like him a lot because he was tough, and he was a competitor and a leader.”
Over the next two years at West Virginia, Howard threw 52 touchdown passes to 26 interceptions, and rushed for 16 more scores, leading the 2016 Mountaineers to their first 10-win season since 2011. But he doesn’t see those numbers as some sort of vindication of his unnoticed ability.
“That’s what I went there to do,” Howard said. “I was never satisfied with my numbers or anything like that, because I felt like they could have been better.”
He’s turned the tables on expectations and has kept tunnel vision on his training since moving back to Fort Worth in January to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys personnel director and currently a senior analyst for NFL.com, predicted that “somebody will bring him to camp,” though concerns about Howard include his height and West Virginia’s quarterback-friendly system.
“There are going to be a lot of people at West Virginia’s Pro Day just to look specifically at [Howard],” Brandt said.
Howard, for one, welcomes the doubt. He’s been through it before.
“A lot of people don’t think it’s going to happen, but a lot of people also told me I wouldn’t get a Division I scholarship,” Howard said. “So I’m just restarting the process of working when nobody believes in you, working in the dark, working in silence, going back to those ways.”
He was part of APEC’s initial class of NFL Combine/Pro Day candidates earlier this year, training just 5 minutes away from the Brewer coaches’ offices Sharr once had to shoo him out of. Sharr said he’s told the Skyler Howard story to every team and every college recruit he’s coached.
“If you want to bet against him, bet against him,” Sharr said. “He’s going to prove you wrong.”
Matthew Martinez; 817-390-7760; @MCTinez817
2017 NFL Draft
The NFL Draft first-round order. The draft is April 27-29 in Philadelphia.
2. San Francisco
5. Tennessee (from Los Angeles Rams)
6. New York Jets
7. Los Angeles Chargers
11. New Orleans
12. Cleveland (from Philadelphia)
14. Philadelphia (from Minnesota)
19. Tampa Bay
23. New York Giants
27. Kansas City
29. Green Bay
32. New Orleans (from New England)