With his team trailing Kansas State by 17 points, Skyler Howard took the field for his first significant action as a West Virginia Mountaineer.
Starter Clint Trickett was ailing, forcing Dana Holgorsen’s team to turn to the under-the-radar Class of 2014 signee early in the third quarter of the Big 12 matchup. Howard responded immediately, flashing the skills that intrigued Holgorsen in the first place while fulfilling a life-long dream of being a Big 12 quarterback. Using his arm and legs, Howard drove his team down the field for a touchdown against Kansas State on his first drive.
The game didn’t end up in the Mountaineers' win column despite Howard’s comeback efforts, but it did cement the notion that Holgorsen and the Mountaineers might have found a hidden gem in the overlooked quarterback.
“I thought he handled it well,” Holgorsen said of the junior college transfer, who ended up starting and playing well in West Virginia's final two games after head injuries forced Trickett to retire. “That got him the upper hand going into the spring.”
Two games into the 2015 season, Howard is playing as well as any quarterback in the Big 12. He leads the conference in completion percentage (72.5), yards per attempt (12.2) and is the only starting quarterback without a turnover this season. As West Virginia pursues its first Big 12 title, Howard will play a critical role. He is the trigger man of the offense and has to protect the ball to help the Mountaineers' star-studded, experienced defense.
There were several times it looked like Howard’s dream would never become a reality. Howard’s road to West Virginia was a long one, with stops at Stephen F. Austin and Riverside Community College before the Texas native landed in Morgantown. After graduating early from Fort Worth (Texas) Brewer High School, Howard headed to Stephen F. Austin as a walk-on before deciding his future was brighter elsewhere.
“I got moved to running back a little bit then decided maybe this isn’t going to work out,” Howard said. “I want to play quarterback somewhere.”
He settled on Riverside (California) Community College, where he again walked on, intent on playing quarterback.
“There were times [I had doubts],” he said. “I’m in California, I didn’t have any money, I didn’t have any family out here, I have nothing except for me. Something kept me fighting on and I’m glad I did.”
That fighting spirit caught Holgorsen’s eye.
West Virginia's then-offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson -- who is now offensive coordinator at Kentucky -- unearthed Howard after hours of watching film. After a few visits from Dawson and Holgorsen, everybody involved felt like West Virginia was the perfect fit. The Mountaineers, with plenty of uncertainty at the quarterback position following an up-and-down 2013 season, needed a junior college arm to help make it through spring ball. Howard, as a mid-year enrollee with three years to play, fit the bill. To top it off, during his lone season as a walk-on freshman at RCC, Howard took over halfway through his first game then led the squad to an 11-win season.
“That kind of grabbed our attention,” Holgorsen said. “We liked the fact he was an overachiever that overcame a lot of stuff, went to a foreign environment in California and won the job, was the team leader and he was a winner. He threw a good ball, was mobile and smart. That stuff added up to the point we liked him and went after him.”
Shortly thereafter Howard’s dreams of being a Big 12 quarterback became reality.
“When West Virginia came in, it changed the game,” Howard said. “I grew up watching the Big 12 and I knew all the teams I would play and also get to go home and see my family at the same time. It was a no-brainer for me.”
After years of being surrounded by doubts (and doubters), Howard has a big fan in Holgorsen, who has mentored some of college football's most productive quarterbacks in recent years in Case Keenum, Brandon Weeden and Geno Smith.
Howard’s climb to the Division I level didn’t just help him grow as a person and player, it helped convince Holgorsen the overlooked quarterback could be an asset in a Mountaineers uniform.
“You need guys, when things go bad because life is hard, to not give up, not say this wasn’t supposed to be this way because of entitlement or whatever it is,” Holgorsen said. “You need a guy to scratch and crawl his way to be able to get things done. The guy will do whatever you gotta do to be successful. And that’s kind of what you’re looking for in a quarterback.”