Austin Howard led Southern University on a touchdown drive only two possessions into the MEAC/SWAC Challenge last Sunday to open the 2017 season. Two drives later, Howard scored on a 6-yard run to give the Jaguars a 14-3 lead and Southern held on to take a 14-8 victory over South Carolina State.
For anyone who has followed Howard’s career, getting off to quick starts is nothing new for the senior quarterback.
“I was just trying to make a play for my team. I knew the defense would overflow to the play that we had and I just took it upon myself to get in the end zone and we came out victorious so it was a good day,” Howard said of his touchdown and his team’s triumph.
The effort harkened back to Howard’s days as a prep star at West St. John.
Like at Southern, Howard began his career early as a quarterback. He was the Rams’ starter as a sophomore and became the Southern starter as a freshman.
Entering the 2017 season, Howard had started 34 games, completing 508 of 878 pass attempts for 7,043 yards with 61 touchdowns to only 19 interceptions. Those are quite heady numbers for a guy who had no intention of playing football.
Howard and Robert Valdez, his coach at West St. John, remember the origins of a young quarterback’s rise a bit differently.
It all goes back to a suggestion by West St. John baseball coach Greg Joseph.
“When Austin was in the eighth grade, we were sitting outside the pavilion at West St. John and Greg said, ‘I really like this young man and would like to see him play football. He’s more or less a baseball player but I really want him to play football,’” Valdez recalled
“At that point in time, Greg and Austin already had established a good relationship. I said, ‘OK, no problem. Let’s get out there,’” Valdez continued.
The suggestion by Joseph that Howard play football is not in question. The particulars, however, vary with the player’s version of the development.
“My intention was never to play football,” Howard recalls. “Coach Robert Valdez came to me and told me, ‘you are playing football – he never gave me an option. I thank him for believing in me to run his team through those years. Like I said, my intention was never to play football. I’m a baseball guy; still a baseball guy.”
Howard caught everyone’s eye during 7-on-7 competition.
“He started out playing municipal football,” Valdez remembered. “We were playing 7-on-7 and he was going into the ninth grade and we used to be in that St. Charles Catholic league. We were playing against East St. John. Coach (Larry) Dautrieve and I used to get after it. He was as great mentor of mine. It was right after we were looking for a quarterback. In the ninth grade, he came into one of those 7-on-7 games and he was just on fire. He was throwing the ball all over the place and we actually ended up beating East St. John in 7-on-7 that day. Coach Dautrieve said, ‘where did you get him? Where did he transfer from?’ I said, ‘he didn’t. He’s going to be a freshman.’ Coach was like, ‘he’s going to be pretty good.’”
Howard was slated to be the starting quarterback at West St. John his freshman year but Mark Wright, transfer from Texas, arrived and as a senior was given the nod as the Rams’ signal caller. Howard was moved to receiver.
It was a move Valdez and Howard agree helped with the then-freshman’s ultimate development as a quarterback.
“I think it helped him a lot because he was able to identify and give him timing because he now knew the receiver breaks. Chris Peters (then the Rams’ receivers coach), who worked for me at West St. John, is probably one of the best in the business. He’s now offensive coordinator at Scotlandville,” Valdez said.
“Chris is a phenomenal receivers coach and he taught those guys how to play receiver the right way,” Valdez continued. “Having that year at receiver, it really helped Austin identify with timing and rhythm and release and ball points and all that. He threw the ball where it was supposed to be. Oftentimes you didn’t see young kids understand break points like that and timing. The ball would be out of his hands before the receiver would break the route and the receiver would turn and the ball would be right there.”
“I’m a freshman that year so I’m on a lot of decoy routes,” recalled Howard. “I just did whatever I had to to help my team win. I’ve been like that. I’m a humble guy and a team player at the end of the day.
“As far as playing receiver helping me, I saw what the defense does and what the cornerbacks do. I saw if they bank to the sideline and what coverage they are in. All that helped me and I kept that in mind when I played quarterback.”
At the end of Howard’s freshman season, Valdez decided to reinvent the West St. John offense with his young quarterback in mind – if the coach was to return the following season.
“I’ll never forget, we lost to White Castle in the first round of the playoffs and I told Austin, ‘if they don’t fire me’ – because I thought I was going to get fired that year because we lost in the first round of the playoffs – ‘if they don’t fire me, we are going to leash hell on everybody from here on out,’” Valdez remembered. “We changed our offense to fit Austin’s needs and I really reinvented myself as an offensive coach and I attribute a lot of that to Austin.”
That offseason Valdez was like a mad scientist from a bad science fiction movie, experimenting with a new offensive philosophy.
“We went in the lab and I’ll never forget the kid and I and my coaches, we built a system that was made for Austin that Southern still uses today,” said Valdez.
“When I graduated from West St. John and came here, it was a lot of the same stuff we were running – the same calls, too. He (Valdez) really put me in a position to be successful as a freshman,” Howard said.
Valdez, a former offensive lineman at Southern, moved away from what had been his comfort zone as a coach.
“We were more of a pro style and just running the ball 30 or 40 times a game and throw the ball maybe 10-15 times a game,” Valdez said. “Being an offensive lineman, I always thought you were supposed to play the game that way. We had done some spread but we didn’t move as fast as we did with Austin.
“We broke down Oregon, we broke down the Oklahoma States and a lot of these fast-paced Texas Tech spread-type of teams. We identified Austin as having a quick release and being able to read defenses. We all learned together as we built this offense that was so powerful for us when we were there.”
Howard, Valdez and the West St. John flourished with the new spread offense.
“By his senior year, he was really calling the offense,” Valdez said. “We had so much confidence in him that we gave him the ability to check out of plays in the middle of the game. He would come to the sideline and tell me, ‘I called this because I saw this,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, good.’ We had that type of relationship.
“We put all our chips on a 10th grader. He led us to a state championship (appearance) and as a junior and senior, two state semifinals. He had about as decorated a career as possible.”
A lot of people, Howard said, contributed to that success.
“I give it to my coaches – Antoine Carter, LaVanta Davis, Chris Peters, Coach Robert Valdez, Brandon Walters – I give the credit to all of them. They put us on the field and put us great positions to win,” said Howard.
Against South Carolina State on Sunday, the Jaguars saw their 14-3 margin cut to 14-8. Howard, as a vocal leader, urged on his team. That’s something he wouldn’t have done as an underclassman.
“As a freshman and sophomore, I was more about action – just watch me do what I do,” said Howard. “Now, I’m a senior so guys have to hear the positivity come out my mouth. When stuff goes bad, who will they lean on? They will lean on me. The coaches helped me understand that.
“The other day, Coach (Chennis) Berry (Southern’s offensive coordinator) told me, ‘we don’t have a vocal leader.’ So I try to work on that even more and try and get my team going the right way.”
Off to a 1-0 start his senior season, Howard said he likes what he sees from the Jaguars.
“I like what I’m seeing in our defense and our offense. Our offense was a little slow but it was the first game. It will improve as the weeks go on but our defense stepped up tremendously. I’m very happy and proud of what we did. Our demeanor was up. We never hung our heads. Last year’s team would have hung our heads when a big play was made. This year’s team, we bounced back and kept each other up,” he said.
Few are prouder of Howard’s success than Valdez.
“The people he plays have tremendous team speed and watching him play and having a handle of the offense and making the plays he makes and maintain the academic standards, he will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of Southern University football,” said Valdez.
“Right now he’s the face of that program with how he competes and all those things,” Valdez continued. “I’m just excited for him and I know that he will be successful in whatever he does after he leaves college because he will compete and always want to win.”
At heart, Howard will always be a River Parish boy.
“We have athletes down there. If you are looking to scout some players, come to the River Parishes,” Howard said.