HOUSTON -- Tytus Howard's college football career began with a Facebook message.
His mom, Teresa Rivers, reached out to Alabama State head coach Reggie Barlow, asking him to take a look at her son, a high school quarterback. Rivers thought her son deserved a shot at playing at the next level, and she wanted him to do it somewhere close. She had just moved to Montgomery, Alabama, and had heard of Alabama State. So she sent a message to Barlow, telling him about Howard, and sent along a few highlight tapes.
“I told him if he gave him an opportunity to come in and prove himself, I know he would earn a scholarship,” Rivers said last week, after Howard was drafted by the Houston Texans with the No. 23 pick in the 2019 NFL draft. “And it didn’t take long for Coach Barlow to respond. And he actually just did as he said. He said, ‘I’m going to get him in.’”
Barlow showed his staff the tape. Though the coaches didn’t think Howard was a college quarterback, they saw promise in the athleticism and “raw ability” of the 6-foot-3, 215-pound high school senior.
Barlow, who played in the NFL before returning to his alma mater to coach in 2005, said receiving a message of this type from a parent isn’t uncommon.
“But how many times does it work out?” Barlow continued. “Not a lot.”
A new position
Howard went to Alabama State as a walk-on intent on proving himself. After his first semester, Barlow left, and new head coach Brian Jenkins told Howard he was giving him a chance to earn a scholarship. By the end of his freshman year -- which he spent as a tight end, though he never played a snap at the position -- he was awarded a full ride.
“I actually cried,” Howard said. “I was the first male in my family to go to college and to be on scholarship. It was just a burden I could take off of my family. [We could] stop having to take out loans.”
On a three-way call, Howard told his mom and his brother he was now on a full scholarship. Rivers burst into tears.
“Oh God, I was a mess,” Rivers said. “Besides him getting his college degree, that was the most glorious moment to me.”
With that scholarship came the idea of a position change. The ASU coaching staff first tried Howard on the scout team to see if he had the right footwork to make the change to offensive tackle.
Once they figured out Howard had the tools to play tackle, they focused on making him look like a tackle.
Howard had always been small -- he was nicknamed "Weenie" by his family because, as a premature baby, “he was the smallest thing in the house” -- so when he and the coaching staff decided his new home was on the offensive line, he had some work to do before he fit there.
They had seen this work before. One of Howard’s teammates, tackle Jylan Ware, also bulked up to play tackle. Ware was drafted by the Raiders in the seventh round in 2016.
“We saw a lot of what Jylan did do and what he didn’t do, so I was able to formulate a better plan for Tytus, just having a guy go through the process two years prior,” said Medgar Harrison, Alabama State director of strength and conditioning.
For the past four years, Howard worked with Harrison to transform his body. Harrison was tasked with making sure not only that Howard put on good weight but also that he was still able to use his athleticism and be “able to move in all the ways all offensive linemen aren’t able to move.”
The first time Harrison sat down with Howard to have a “come-to-Jesus counseling session,” he told him the fast food, sweets and empty calories had to go. Instead, Harrison made sure Howard was getting complex carbohydrates, getting good cuts of meats and making sure the protein he ate was baked, not fried or soaked in butter.
Of course, Howard indulged in some foods outside of Harrison’s meal plan. He ate whole pans of his fiancée’s chicken spaghetti and his mom’s Kool-Aid pie, a dessert made by mixing condensed milk, Cool Whip, Kool-Aid and crushed pineapples and letting it set in a graham-cracker pie crust.
Howard’s training regimen dictated when he would eat, what he ate and how it was prepared, and Harrison estimated that Howard was eating between 6,000 and 8,000 calories a day to steadily gain the weight over the next four years.
“He stuck to putting on [at most] 1 to 2 pounds a week, and that’s what we stuck to every week,” Harrison said. “It wasn’t gain 10 pounds in a week, gain 20 pounds in a month. It was a steady process of, let’s try to gain 60-80 pounds over the next four years.”
Donald Hill-Eley, who was Alabama State’s tight ends coach in 2015 and was named interim coach in 2017, said he had constant weight check-ins with Howard. By the NFL combine in late February, Howard had grown to 6-5 and 322 pounds.
“He worked at putting on weight, and he worked on managing the weight so he could maintain his speed and explosion,” Hill-Eley said. “Tytus worked. Every day, you saw him at the facility or you saw him working towards his dream of being an NFL player. And he made it happen.”
Howard showed off on social media the change he had made from a high school quarterback in 2011 to an NFL-ready offensive tackle in 2018.
As he continued to gain weight, Howard was having success as a tackle. He was a part-time starter at right tackle during his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons, then started all 11 games at left tackle in 2017 before moving back to right tackle last season. When Howard made the transition to tackle, he started playing on the right side but was lining up with the second team. His coach told him if he was going to learn to play tackle, he might as well learn both sides at once.
The Texans believe that because Howard has played several other positions on offense, it will help give him “a full understanding of the passing game, the pass-protection schemes, the run game."
“There really shouldn’t be any limitations,” Texans general manager Brian Gaine said. “He’ll understand the premises and maybe the things that a quarterback has to deal with. He’ll understand what a tight end has to deal with, and he’s playing offensive line. I think that’s a very unique skill set when it comes to the mental profile of the game.”
‘You belong here’
Because he played at an FCS school, Howard will face a significant jump in the level of competition in the NFL compared with the front sevens he went against while at Alabama State. And though Gaine acknowledged that there will be some adjustments needed because Howard isn’t coming from a Power 5 conference, he pointed to the success the tackle had against Auburn his senior season and at the Senior Bowl a few months later as reasons he is “not concerned about that at all.”
At the Senior Bowl in January, Howard went up against Mississippi State outside linebacker Montez Sweat -- a first-round pick by the Redskins -- in one-on-ones. Howard won the first rep and lost the second, he said.
“After that first day of practice, I came to talk to the offensive-line coach,” Howard said. “He was like, ‘You belong here.’ I was like, ‘I know I belong here. I’m going to get better tomorrow.’
“That week just gave me a lot more motivation. I had a chip on my shoulder to be better, to prove that I belong, and I did that.”
Howard proved he belonged not just as an NFL player but as a first-round pick. Even if he didn’t always see it himself.
The week before the draft, Hill-Eley saw Howard post on Twitter that he had a draft party scheduled for Friday. For Rounds 2-3 of the draft.
“I called him and I told him to take it down,” Hill-Eley said. “Because unless you feel like you’re 1, you’re going to be treated as 2. So he took it down. And we talked about it the day before the draft. And I was like, 'Tytus, you’ve got to think big. I really think that you’re going to go first round.'
“I really believed it.”
Starting left tackle?
In the past five years, Howard went from a high school quarterback who wanted to be just like Cam Newton to a walk-on tight end to a first-round tackle who will be tasked with protecting one of the best young quarterbacks in the NFL.
Last season, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was sacked an NFL-worst 62 times. Most of the 2018 offensive line remains on the team, but Howard is likely to win a starting job during training camp.
Howard will compete with veteran tackles Matt Kalil and Seantrel Henderson -- both of whom are coming off injuries -- but if he doesn’t win either of those starting jobs, he could beat out Zach Fulton or Senio Kelemete to start at guard.
At the No. 23 pick, Gaine and head coach Bill O’Brien were looking for an offensive lineman who offered them positional flexibility. They chose Howard, who Gaine feels is a true “four-hole” player and will give Houston's coaches the versatility they like on the offensive line.
Howard knows he will have a tough task making the transition to the NFL, but said he feels his skill set will allow him to succeed in protecting the Texans’ prized signal-caller.
“Watson is a very mobile quarterback,” Howard said. “I feel like me and my athleticism, I’ll be able to protect him longer. He’s more mobile, so he moves around a lot more.”
And Howard believes his background as a quarterback will help him protect Watson for one more reason.
“I know how it feels to play quarterback,” Howard said. “So I know how being sacked feels.”