MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dana Holgorsen admits that there was a time when he wasn’t sure if Skyler Howard was ready to step into the role as West Virginia’s backup quarterback, much less the starter.
In fact, he was thinking that right about the time Howard was forced to step into the role as West Virginia’s backup quarterback and, therefore, just before he became the starter.
“We didn’t think he was ready,” Holgorsen said Friday, thinking back to both the summer and into the fall. “Mentally we didn’t think he was ready. Physically we didn’t think he was ready. We went with William Crest earlier in the year because I thought he was ahead of him.
“But the improvements that he’s made in the last two months? I’ve never seen it with a quarterback before, not as a true sophomore.”
— Dana Holgorsen, WVU coach
The timing, of course, was fortuitous. Not only was Howard’s improvement such that he was able to fill the backup role, but he was also able to step in and enable WVU’s offense to miss nary a beat when Clint Trickett went down with a concussion.
And now that Trickett has admitted that it wasn’t just one concussion, but his fifth, Howard has had plenty of time to prepare for what figures to be his biggest test — starting against Texas A&M in Monday’s Liberty Bowl.
To understand just how far Howard has come, it is perhaps instructive to recall where he was. In the spring, he and veteran backup Paul Millard were given every opportunity to prove themselves with Trickett sidelined. Howard didn’t.
When Crest, the talented freshman, arrived on campus in the summer, Howard had another shot at winning the backup job. He couldn’t do it then, either.
But when Crest went down with a bad shoulder and the decision had all but been sealed to attempt to redshirt Millard, Holgorsen was left without much choice. To say that Howard was simply thrown into the fire would not be an understatement.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Holgorsen said when asked if Howard was promoted because there weren’t any other appealing options. “At that point we wanted to save Paul going into his senior year. You saw Clint improve going into his senior year and we thought Paul would show that kind of improvement as well. So we wanted to save him and the next guy up was Skyler.
“He took advantage of the reps that he was allowed and he’s shown a ton of improvement.”
Aside from Holgorsen, perhaps no one knows that better than Tony Gibson. With a month to drill Howard in the offense, Holgorsen took every opportunity to throw him up against West Virginia’s first-team defense, rather than a scout team. Gibson, WVU’s defensive coordinator, has had plenty of chances to see him work.
“We’ve thrown a bunch of stuff at him — different blitzes, sending seven, eight guys; dropping eight or nine guys,” Gibson said. “We’ve done it all to him and he just keeps on clicking.”
A big part of that is that Howard, a 6-foot, 206-pounder who spent just one semester in junior college before transferring to West Virginia in January, has something the rail-thin Trickett obviously doesn’t — the ability to run with the football. Trickett ran only when there was no other choice and still wound up with those five concussions.
Howard has run for more yards in a game and a half (107) than Trickett did all season (plus 78 and minus 184 on sacks).
“Skyler gives you a whole other dimension you have to prepare against because he’s such a run threat,” Gibson said. “He’ll pull the ball down and take off on you, so you have to make sure you contain him. He’s gotten out of the pocket a few times on us.
“It’s no secret that we like to blitz. We like to bring pressure. And when you do that against quarterbacks like him you have to make sure you keep him in the pocket.”
He hasn’t thrown the ball badly, either. In his game-and-a-half since relieving Trickett, Howard is 36 of 63 for 483 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
“He’s been impressive,” Gibson said. “He’s throwing the ball really well right now. There’s some quarterback run stuff. He looks good. He’s playing with a lot of confidence right now and you can see that grow from the second half of the Kansas State game all the way up through preparation [in Memphis].
“And he prepares. The kid’s a film rat. He studies it, he understand the system, understands the scheme. Our offense, just like A&M’s, it’s all about timing. And he understands that. He gets rid of the ball quickly and he sees the whole field. I’ve been impressed with him.”
There is an argument to be made, though, that Howard hasn’t faced his most difficult test. He was thrown into the game against Kansas State facing a big deficit and with no real expectations. His start was against an Iowa State team that was winless in the Big 12.
And while Texas A&M has its own significant defensive issues — the Aggies fired their coordinator at the end of the regular season — playing in a bowl game is just different. There’s a far brighter spotlight and, thus, higher expectations, especially given that Howard is no longer a rookie.
He seems far more prepared, however, than anyone thought he might be just a few short months ago.
“It’s night and day,” Holgorsen said. “I mean, before we put him in against Kansas State I was concerned. We didn’t know how he would react and he handled it well. I think that gave him a bunch of confidence to where he got better in the Iowa State game and I’ve seen considerable improvement here in the last four weeks.”
• Trickett retires after multiple concussions