Purdue's Howard the next big thing

The ball is snapped and Ra'Zahn Howard explodes, big-footing across the line of scrimmage to maul running back Akeem Hunt, jarring the ball free. About an hour later, as Purdue's workout ends with team sprints, a huffing and puffing Howard is the last man to cross the line.

The two moments during one of Purdue's practices in March encapsulated the defensive tackle's prodigious potential and how far he still must go to maintain that level of play.

Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell isn't big on hyperbole. He answers questions directly and succinctly, but the Jim Tressel disciple doesn't heap undue praise upon a player, especially an unproven one. Still, Hazell can’t hide his excitement about the 6-4, 315-pound sophomore this spring.

"The most exciting football player on our team right now," Hazell told ESPN.com. "He's got uncommon quickness. He's got unbelievable power. He can be very disruptive.

"He's really special."

Whether Howard becomes a special player for Purdue remains to be seen. The Boilers could use one after a 1-11 season where nearly nothing went right on either side of the ball.

For now, he's an interesting player -- from his backstory, to his path to Purdue, to his conditioning challenges as a Boiler, to his versatility, to his confidence.

"When we line up in one-on-one, I don't lose," Howard said. "And as far as the run game as far as my get-off, me being the big, explosive athlete that I am, I am aware of the things I can do.

"I just want to continue to humble myself and get better."

Alrighty then ...

Howard, a New Jersey native from what he calls a rough background, didn't start playing football until his junior year in high school. He inherited his size from his father, a 6-foot-8, 330-pound giant who, according to Ra'Zahn, had a scholarship offer to Ohio State before taking "the street route."

Howard played his junior season at Winslow Township High School in southern New Jersey before moving north to Asbury Park, N.J., where he earned all-state honors and led Asbury Park High School to a state championship in 2011. Howard recorded 31 tackles for loss and 12 sacks as a senior.

He committed to Towson a few months later, where his cousin, Marcus Valentine, played defensive tackle and served as a co-captain. But in an effort to boost his stock and his grades, Howard attended a prep school, Atlanta Sports Academy in Dawsonville, Ga., where he "just blew up."

Former LSU defensive tackle Brandon Washington coached Howard at Atlanta Sports Academy, telling him he had the ability to take over games.

"I got bigger and stronger, of course, and I just got better offers," Howard said. "I got better as a defensive tackle."

One recruiting service rated Howard as the nation's No. 4 defensive tackle. His suitors included Tennessee, Penn State and Mississippi State.

So why did he pick Purdue? His jersey offers a clue. Howard wears No. 93, the same number as former Purdue's standout defensive tackle Kawann Short, a three-time All-Big Ten selection and a second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

"He's one of the reasons I committed here," Howard said. "I had watched a lot of his film. Originally coming out of prep school, I was going to go to Tennessee, but when I came here and met him, it was like a dream come true."

Despite his late introduction to the sport, Howard is somewhat of a football film junkie. He studies defensive linemen such as Timmy Jernigan, Anthony Johnson and Adrian Clayborn, picking up moves and nuances to evolve his game. In his mind, he's making up for lost time.

At prep school, Howard played the 5-technique, the 4-technique, nose guard and even a bit of defensive end. He spent most of the spring playing nose guard at Purdue.

"Ra'Zahn, he might be the most talented person on the defense," Boilers senior defensive end Ryan Russell said. "I've seen a lot of players come through and I've had great tackles, Bruce Gaston and Kawann Short. I definitely think his talent level is up there with them."

The challenge is keeping that talent on the field. Howard was pushing 350 pounds when he arrived at Purdue. He trimmed down to 315 by spring practice and, according to Hazell, is now south of 310.

Howard recorded four tackles, including a sack, in six games last season. Hazell expects much more from him this fall.

"I saw flashes last year," Hazell said. "You saw the power more so than the quickness. Now you’re seeing the power along with, he ran stride for stride with a back down the line on a toss play. He just put his foot in the ground and redirected."

Asked about his sprint struggles at practice and whether there would be a different result in preseason camp, Howard smiled.

"I'm going to have the same ability, of course, but I'm going to be much faster," he said. "I'm going to be around 303, 305, more cut-up."

With size, speed, power, confidence and, potentially, fitness, Howard could be the man to provide a spark for a Purdue defense that desperately needs one.

"He's a different cat," Hazell said. "He really is."