Austin Howard: Bags to riches?

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- You've heard this story before: A former Northern Iowa standout doesn't get drafted by the NFL, works in a Hy Vee grocery story in Iowa and, through hard work and a couple of breaks, hits it big and becomes a star.

It's Kurt Warner, former Super Bowl champion and a possible Hall of Famer someday. He became the most famous grocery clerk in history.

And maybe Austin Howard?

The Jets' new starting right tackle has a long way to go before he reaches that level, but he shares a few similarities with Warner -- the alma mater, the undrafted status and, yes, he worked for the same grocery chain as the retired quarterback. So at least the big fella has a role model.

"This," Howard said Friday of his starting opportunity, "is a dream come true."

Howard will start Sunday night against the Panthers, replacing the benched Wayne Hunter. If Howard plays well, he'll be the Jets' opening-day starter. If he doesn't ... well, the Jets will have a problem. Talk about pressure.

"Welcome to the business," Howard said.

The Jets picked up Howard last September from the Ravens, who picked him up from the Eagles, who signed him as a free agent out of Northern Iowa. His NFL resume includes only one career start (Eagles, left tackle), in the 2010 finale against the Cowboys.

Howard was the biggest surprise in training camp, considering where he was only five months ago. In March, he ballooned to nearly 360 pounds, causing people in the organization to wonder whether he had the commitment to make it in the league.

"They always told me, 'Hey, you have so much potential,'" he said. "To me, that says you're still not there yet. That was a motivator to me. I didn't want to be a guy that has all this potential. I want to be the guy who exceeds my own expectations and exceeds other people's expectations for me."

Howard dropped nearly 30 pounds before training camp. He attended conditioning and spin classes with his girlfriend, worked out twice a day, watched his diet and mountain-biked. Now he's down to 330. At 6-foot-7, he's still massive (he was a 250-pound basketball player as a freshman at Northern Iowa), but at least he's in shape.

On Sunday night, he gets the chance of a lifetime. Howard said he spent extra time watching tape of the Panthers, preparing for their personnel. If he has a good game, the former grocery-store employee will be in the express lane.