Austin Howard has taken on a bigger role than was planned for his freshman season at Southern.

He arrived on campus from West St. John High School as part of a four-man battle for the starting quarterback position. Deonte Shorts and Francis Kennah had a close battle in the spring before Howard and fellow freshman Jarrad Hayes arrived.

Howard quickly thrust himself into the competition, Kennah left the team and when the season began, Howard was getting limited snaps in relief of Shorts. Since then, Howard has proven capable of handling more and more, was thrust into the starting lineup when Shorts was hurt and held on to the starting spot even after Shorts returned.

As the Jaguars prepare to face Grambling for the Southwestern Athletic Conference West Division title in the Bayou Classic on Saturday, Howard has emerged as one of the central figures in the team’s quest to repeat as SWAC champion.

Running back Lenard Tillery, a redshirt sophomore, said Howard’s teammates stopped thinking of him as a freshman several weeks ago.

“We’re not going to look at you as someone who’s lesser, we’re going to look at you as an equal,” Tiller said. “Actually we’re going to look up to you more. You’re the quarterback, you’re the head of this offense.”

Tillery is 27 yards from becoming the Jaguars’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2003, and the running game has made life easier for Howard and Shorts, who continues to play in relief of Howard.

“I’m a defensive coach,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said, “and most of the time when you have a defensive head coach, there’s an emphasis on running the football, because if you want to win championships, the way you keep some of the high-powered offenses off the field is by being able to run the football.

“We keep the pressure off of him. That’s why you’ve got to be able to run the football. That makes his job a lot easier.”

His job is also made it easier by the pass protection. Southern has allowed just seven sacks in 11 games.

“When you have an offensive line like we have, it should be pretty easy to play quarterback because you rarely get touched,” Odums said. “You’re always up. They’ve done a great job of creating running lanes and passing lanes for us to be able to move the ball up and down the field.

“We’ve got good offensive linemen, we’ve got good backs, and we put the ball in their hands. If you stack the box, we’ve got receivers and we can spread you out.”

Although Southern has not had to lean heavily on Howard week in and week out, he generally has responded well when circumstances have required more of him.

“We know he has the capability if we need to put the game on his shoulders that he would relish in that moment to try and get this football team in position to win,” Odums said. “You saw that against Alabama A&M, and he has continued to get better.”

Southern was trailing Alabama A&M 34-14 in the third quarter on the road on Oct. 11 when a season-defining comeback began. Howard threw long touchdown passes — 79 yards to Willie Quinn and 68 yards to Justin Morgan — to get the Jaguars within one score entering the fourth quarter.

Ultimately, Southern prevailed by a point after Howard directed a nine-play, 44-yard drive that ended with Malcolm Crockett’s 1-yard touchdown run with 51 seconds left.

That was the second win in what has become a six-game win streak. Howard, who threw seven interceptions in the first seven games, has not thrown any in the last four.

Howard averaged 259 yards passing during the first four games of the win streak, but has averaged 124.5 in the last two because the Jaguars ran the ball and mostly played with a lead against Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley State.

There’s little doubt Southern would like to run the ball consistently well and make life easier for Howard against Grambling in the biggest game on the biggest stage of his freshman season.

But he’s already shown that if things don’t unfold as planned, he can take on a bigger role.

“At times he seems like a freshman,” offensive lineman Dewayne Houston said. “It might be a big game, and he might be real, real hyped to start the game. Other times, we’re in game situations and we have to score, we have to execute and he shows a real mature side. He shows his athleticism and how smart he is.”

Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.