It was just minutes before Southern’s Southwestern Athletic Conference opener last season when freshman quarterback Austin Howard learned he was about to make his first college start.
He had played a few series in relief of Deonte Shorts in the first three games but, as kickoff at Prairie View neared, Shorts’ sore elbow hadn’t responded well enough to treatment to allow him to play.
“I knew right then I had to buckle my chinstrap and do what I had to do,” Howard said. “I wasn’t a freshman anymore. I was the quarterback at Southern University. If you would have told me two minutes or two hours or two days before the game, it wouldn’t have mattered. I’m just a real competitor. When I go out there, I’m just like, ‘I’m here now; there’s no turning back.’ ”
The Jaguars’ running game and defense made things relatively easy for Howard, who played efficiently (8-of-15 passing, 108 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) in a 34-24 victory that started Southern on its way to a second consecutive SWAC West Division title.
“I think that was great for him not to have a chance to think about it because Austin sometimes gets a lot going on up top,” quarterbacks coach Chad Germany said. “He actually went out and played a good game for us.”
It wasn’t exactly Lou Gehrig replacing Wally Pipp, but Howard did keep the starting job even when Shorts was healthy. The lone exception was a victory at Jackson State when Howard sat out the first half as punishment for missing curfew. He wound up being SWAC freshman of the year.
“I’ve been starting and doing this football thing since 6 years old, 7 years old,” Howard said. “It really wasn’t a big deal to me. I knew if I had the opportunity I was going to take full advantage of it.”
Southern kept a close eye on Howard throughout his standout career at West St. John High School, where Dray Joseph, the Jaguars’ all-time passing leader whose career ended two years ago, had preceded Howard.
“In high school, you see a lot of good things (and) you see a lot of bad things,” coach Dawson Odums said. “But you look for the basics. You talk about his leadership, you talk about his character, you talk about how he is in the huddle, how he is off the field, because that guy is the face of the program and you have to entrust your program to that guy.”
Howard earned a 3.0 grade-point average in the spring semester as he met Odums’ expectations on and off the field.
“I’m really hard on that position,” Odums said. “Are you going to carry yourself like a champion off the field, because everybody’s looking at you? Second to the head coach, that’s the most valuable person in your program.
“The spotlight’s always on him. He can never do anything right. ... Everybody sees when you do wrong, but you have to have the kind of character that you can withstand that kind of storm, and he’s that kind of guy, and we saw that when he was in high school.”
Odums and Germany have been emphasizing ball security to Howard, who wasn’t reckless for a freshman but did have eight interceptions and five lost fumbles.
“Austin kind of reminds of Brett Favre to some degree,” Germany said. “He’s a risk-taker. Sometimes that’s good, and sometimes that’s bad. So on some of those interceptions it was the bad side of it, but I will never discourage him in taking risks — just try and make them a little bit more calculated.”
When asked about improving his ball security, Howard recalled correctly that he had four interceptions in the first four games last season, including three against Northwestern State in the third game.
He had only four the rest of the season.
“When you’ve been through the fire and been in that foxhole and you’ve gotten hit and you’ve been up, been down, had to come back, and you’ve grown up on the job, that creates confidence, especially when you’ve experienced success under all that adversity,” Odums said. “That’s really the big thing about Austin — that he doesn’t have any kind of lack of confidence.
“He’s got a big-league arm. It’s the game management that he’s got to get better at and, once he takes those steps, the sky’s the limit as far as how good he can become.”