Head coach Chris Klieman had a difficult decision to make after Skylar Thompson went down in the game against Texas Tech two weeks ago. He could put in junior Nick Ast or take a risk and play true freshman Will Howard.
Klieman decided to take the risk and it paid off. Howard led the Wildcats to two straight victories, including a 21-14 victory over TCU in his first career start with the Wildcats.
“It’s crazy to think where I was a year ago and where I’m at now,” Howard said after the TCU game. “I came here because I thought there would be an opportunity to play early and compete. I didn’t expect it to be this early. It stinks how it happened with Skylar but we’re hoping he’s going to get better.”
Howard is only the fourth true freshman to start at quarterback for the Wildcats in school history. His road victory in Fort Worth is the first time a true freshman won their first career start on the road in school history.
The coaching staff didn’t doubt the 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback was ready to make his first collegiate start against the Horned Frogs.
“We knew we recruited him that he had that ‘it’ factor,” Klieman said. “We didn’t think it would be this year, but you never know when your opportunity does arise. We just told him you prepare every week like you are going to play, and I know that he did that and it is probably the reason he had success against Texas Tech — his preparation was so critical.”
Completing eight of his 19 passing attempts for 117 yards against the Horned Frogs as well as rushing for 86 yards on 13 carries, Klieman saw that “it” factor on the field last Saturday.
The K-State staff knew what they were going to be getting from Howard when they recruited him — a winner. Quarterbacks coach Collin Klein called Howard a cerebral player that studies his butt off.
“It starts with how he carries himself and his demeanor,” Klein said. “What he was able to do in high school and carry that team as far as they have been in a long time and the way he did it with humility is tremendous. He has come in here in such a short time with limited reps and experience through the spring and has been able to earn everything he has gotten. I couldn’t be more pleased, but there’s a lot on the table that he’s hungry and excited for that we need to all strive to improve.”
Sitting in a three-way tie for first place with a 3-0 record in Big 12 Conference play, Howard is going to be crucial in determining the rest of the Wildcat’s success this year.
While Howard continues to learn as he plays throughout this season, the coaching staff shows confidence in the freshman, not limiting any of the playbooks with him at quarterback.
“I don’t think operationally anything is off the table,” Klein said. “More than anything, it’s just about getting experience with the live bullets and the speed of the game and the speed of the decision making and all those types of things. That just comes with time and experience. He got better throughout the game on Saturday. He’ll get better this week and every week beyond.”
The players feel the same way about Howard. Even with Howard only playing two college football games in his career, the confidence level in the locker room with him is as high as can be.
“That is the culture of our team,” assistant coach Van Malone said. “We all recognize from a coach’s standpoint, the next guy has to step in. We don’t have the time or energy to bother ourselves with who is in there, and I think Will is definitely a capable player.”
Klein said Howard’s maturity and calm poise is something that is special about him at such a young age.
“To go in there the past two games in some of the situations he’s been in, he hasn’t wavered,” Klein said. “He’s been calm and poised, and it’s been impressive.”
Howard could lead K-State to unprecedented success after the Wildcats have started the season 3-0 in Big 12 play. While some players may crack under the pressure, Klieman thinks Howard is the opposite.
“Noah [Johnson] and other offensive line guys told me he had total command of the huddle,” Klieman said. “He was very confident in the huddle. That is what we really knew what we were going to get with Will and what we are expecting from him. He has that ‘it’ factor. There are certain guys you just know handle the stage really well, and he’s one of those guys.”