The man with unshakable resolve and his journey to the top: ‘Iron’ Will Howard

Quarterback Will Howard and offensive lineman Cooper Beebe celebrate together after a touchdown scored against Baylor. K-State won 59-25 as Howard secured his 45th career passing touchdown at K-State, the most in program history. (Jersey Johnson | Collegian Media Group)

An easy dump off to fullback Christian Moore delivered quarterback Will Howard his 45th career passing touchdown at Kansas State. This pass made the senior the all-time leader in passing touchdowns in K-State history. Even as he stands among the best in K-State history, his journey to this moment was anything but easy.

“It’s crazy to think about,” Howard said. “Especially with all the stuff, you know, I’ve kinda had to deal with here. I’m just so pleased and I’m so privileged to be in the position that I am.”

Howard went through many unique situations at K-State. He’s constantly found himself battling to play on the field and has received heavy criticism from Wildcat fans. One of his strongest supporters, head coach Chris Klieman, witnessed his journey of peaks and valleys.

“Resolve, you know,” Klieman said about what Howard’s accomplishment says about him. “Toughness, character, gets battled through. And he’s playing at such a high level right now, and [I’m] excited for him, as he’s having a great season. He and I had a lot of conversations this week and [I] couldn’t be more proud of a guy. He knows how much I love him, he knows how I feel about him. And for him to have that record says an awful lot about what kind of player he is.”

In his time in Manhattan with Klieman, Howard had one of the most unique situations to handle. In four years, three different quarterbacks shared the room and playing time with Howard, either because of injuries or plain competition.

“I’ve dealt with, probably every kind of way you can cut it, has probably happened to me,” Howard said. “It’s made me tough, it’s made me be able to work with people well, having to have those relationships with my coaches and with my teammates. … It’s taught me a lot.”

The signal caller from Downingtown, Pennsylvania, arrived in Manhattan to begin his wild story as a freshman in the COVID-19 year of 2020. The Wildcats started 2-1 with former Wildcat quarterback Skylar Thompson at the helm. The future NFL player suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, catapulting the freshman Howard onto the scene.

Wearing #15 as a freshman, quarterback Will Howard throws a pass to a wide receiver Malik Knowles. Howard replaced the injured Skylar Thompson, throwing for 173 yards and his first career passing touchdown in the Oct. 3, 2020.31-21 vs. Texas Tech on . (Archive photo by Dalton Wainscott | Collegian Media Group)

Howard stepped in to finish off Thompson’s victory against Texas Tech 31-21, including coming back from a 21-17 fourth-quarter deficit. The true freshmen then took down TCU and Kansas, boosting the Wildcats to No. 16 in the standings. 

“For that Texas Tech game, it was kind of a scramble,” Howard said after the season. “I didn’t really think about it that much. I just had to go in, and I knew what I had to do.”

Howard then experienced his first adversity at K-State.

The Wildcats went on to lose the final five games of the season with Howard under center. Howard struggled mightily, throwing nine interceptions in the losses to just eight touchdowns on the entire season, all starting with a disastrous 37-10 loss to West Virginia.

Much changed since that Saturday afternoon for Howard.

“You would’ve told an 18-year old Will Howard that just threw three picks against West Virginia if he’d be here today talking to you guys, man, he’d probably tell you he was crazy,” Howard said to the media after breaking the passing touchdown record this season.

Still, a young Howard felt his 2020 season was vital for the team’s success.

“I grew a ton this year,” Howard said after the season. “As much as it sucked while I was going through it, it is definitely going to carry over. I know when we look back and win the Big 12 Championship, we’re gonna say 2020 was a year we grew a lot and learned a lot.”

Howard called his shot on a Big 12 title, but it had to wait a year. 

K-State finished 8-5 with a Texas Bowl victory over LSU in the 2021 season. Howard appeared in six games with three starts and one win. He was not given the reins as a passer in his limited playing time, attempting just 55 passes compared to 32 rushing attempts.

Thompson’s NFL departure opened the window for Howard to finally become the QB1 on campus. However, before the LSU bowl game was even played, his chances took a weighty blow.

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez announced his plans to transfer to K-State Dec. 2021. Martinez’s arrival again put a damper on Howard’s plans to start. 

The emergence of the transfer portal opened up the opportunity for Howard to look elsewhere for playing time. He decided Manhattan was still the place for him, despite the continuous obstacles.

“I love this place too much,” Howard said to KSNT 27 Sports’s Glenn Kinley at Big 12 Media Day 2023. “And I love my teammates, and they believed in me. And my coaches believed in me, and I wanted to prove them right. As much as I wanted to prove everyone wrong, I wanted to prove them right.”

Howard’s bet on himself and K-State proved correct.

Martinez had the Wildcats at a 5-1 record even with a lackluster passing game not reaching 250 yards in a game yet. In the first of two faceoffs against the eventual national runner-ups TCU, Martinez quickly left because of injury. Again, whether Wildcat fans wanted it or not, it was Howard’s time. 

He did not disappoint. 

Four straight Howard drives. Four straight Howard touchdowns.

Howard had the high-powered Horned Frogs down 28-17 at the half leaving many in shock. Still, he had yet to grasp his moment of glory. 

Up 28-24, Howard led a drive to a 44-yard field goal attempt but to no avail. The kick was missed and TCU responded by taking the lead back. Worse, Howard found himself injured. 

The backup-turned-savior came back a few drives later, but it was too late. Down 10, Howard again led a drive to a missed field goal attempt. A late interception on the next drive ended all hopes of a comeback, but Howard’s performance left a mark.

With Martinez still out the next week, Howard came back home to host the No. 9 Oklahoma State Cowboys. Now, after all his time, the Pennsylvania recruit brought Manhattan to its feet.

Leading with 296 passing yards and four touchdowns, Howard and the Wildcats demolished the Cowboys in a 48-0 shutout. Exuberant fans stormed the field lifting Howard, who some once doubted, on their shoulders.

Atop the shoulders of fans, quarterback Will Howard celebrates after a shutout against No. 9 Oklahoma State. Howard threw for 296 yards and four touchdowns in the 48-0 on Oct. 29, 2022. (Archive photo by Macey Franko | Collegian Media Group)

“I finished up my interview with TV and then all of a sudden I’m just getting raised up, I was like ‘what’s going on,’” Howard said after the upset win. “That was really cool, that was something I’m gonna remember for a long time and you know, something I’ll cherish forever.”

Howard finally had K-State fans calling his name but he still found himself on the sideline.

Martinez returned as a starter. The Wildcats hosted the Texas Longhorns in a losing effort 34-27 while he threw for a season-high 329 yards. 

Next week was Baylor, and Martinez suffered another injury.

Howard was once again the man under center. This pattern became the defining anecdote of Howard’s career. Starter hurt, replace him, go back to the bench. This time, Howard seized the role, taking what was his.

After finishing off Baylor with three touchdowns, Howard had two regular season games left to deal with. Again, he delivered.

West Virginia consisted of 294 passing yards and three total touchdowns in a 48-31 win. 

Then Kansas saw Howard throw for 213 yards and two passing touchdowns in a 47-27 win. But there was one more thing this time. A spot in the Big 12 Championship game against the team Howard’s 2022 quest began with: TCU.

Looking for a receiver, quarterback Will Howard looks for tight end Ben Sinnott. Sinnott scored a touchdown on the play as K-State beat TCU 31-28 in overtime to win the Big 12 Championship at AT&T Stadium on December 3, 2022.
(Archive photo by Macey Franko | Collegian Media Group)

As many know, the two purple-blooded programs took the battle in AT&T Stadium to the brink. K-State prevailed in the 31-28 overtime victory. The Wildcats became Big 12 Champions as Howard once predicted all the way back after his freshman season. 

K-State lost against a talented Alabama team in the Sugar Bowl but Howard’s job for 2023 was all but secured. 

A new face entered the quarterback room to join Howard. Just like always. This time, Howard was the veteran. In came the No. 1 recruit in the Kansas class of 2023: quarterback Avery Johnson. Still, the position was unquestionably Howard’s, according to all the coaches.

With the keys to the offense, Howard had a shaky start to the 2023 season, throwing at least one interception in all five games. Howard led the Wildcats to a 3-2 record including a poor performance in a 29-21 loss against Oklahoma State.

The next week featured a new offensive system. Howard and Johnson began to alternate drives against Texas Tech. This ultimately led to Johnson’s breakout game as he played the entire second half and finished with five rushing touchdowns. Again, the calls for a shift away from Howard echoed through X (formerly known as Twitter), message boards, students and the entire fandom.

The two continued the alternating drives in the 41-3 domination of TCU. Howard and Johnson both excelled but Howard led in yards thrown and with three passing touchdowns. In the face of adversity, Howard kept his focus on the team.

“It is what it is, it’s not up to me,” Howard said about the alternating drives. “I just got to control what I can control and you know, help support Avery and then he helped support me. That’s what we got to do.”

K-State followed it up with a 41-0 win over Houston with Howard more firmly at the helm. Howard played all but one drive with the starters as he completed 88% of his passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns.

Next up was possibly the game of the year against No. 7 Texas. The first half was a mess for the Wildcats. Even against Longhorn backup quarterback Maalik Murphy, K-State fell to a 17-0 deficit. The run game grinded to a halt with each Howard and Johnson. Howard led a quick touchdown after a blocked punt at the end of the half to go down 10. From there on out, the offense was his and his alone.

The second half started with a Howard interception that bounced out of K-State wide receiver Keagan Johnson’s hands. Howard had a sack-fumble that led to Texas reaching a 24-7 lead. With two quick turnovers and falling 27-7, Howard unleashed.

With the help of two defensive takeaways, the gunslinger led K-State to 20 unanswered points in just 6:41 of gametime to tie the game after a bobbled extra point snap. The Longhorns went up 30-27. Howard proceeded to lead a field goal drive, similarly to 2022 against TCU, just for the kick to go wide left. 

The defense did step up. Howard was given the ball back at his own 40-yard line with 1:18 remaining. Again, he delivered, bringing K-State to the Texas 27-yard line including a fourth down conversion to send the game to overtime. The Wildcats eventually lost after going for the win in overtime.

Despite the loss, a message was sent to everyone. This is Will Howard’s team. If anyone doesn’t think so, they can talk to tight end Ben Sinnott.

“Will started balling,” Sinnott said after the Texas game before delivering a personal message to K-State nation. “I want to kind of say something about that. I am sick and tired of all you guys, the whole media, all the fans doubting that kid. He’s a warrior. He’s the hardest worker I know. And if I hear one more bad thing about him and how he’s not our starting QB it is gonna really pi— me off because I’m sick and tired of watching this kid work his ass off, sorry, excuse my language, and y’all talk about him. The fans always have something to say. That kid is a leader. He’s a warrior, and I’m sick and tired of hearing about it. So if y’all can just stop that. Thanks.”

This sentiment is felt throughout the team. Howard’s teammates witness his hard work and improve because of it.

“Commitment, just sticking to the process, not letting some[thing] knock you down and make yourself stay down,” running back DJ Giddens said about the lessons learned from Howard’s experience. “Just keep getting up, just keep working … just commitment, commitment.”

Howard reaching this all-time record against Baylor meant so much to those who played alongside him since the beginning.

“Oh it was super awesome,” offensive lineman Cooper Beebe said. “Just, you know, all the ridicule he’s had throughout the years. Just to see him have his moment [of] shine when they announced him. It’s unbelievable you know. I love that dude to death. I’d do anything for him.”

(Graphic by Catherine Eldridge, illustrations by Lilly Crist | Collegian Media Group)

Now, with two games remaining against Kansas and Iowa State, Howard stands four touchdowns away from breaking Ell Roberson’s single season passing touchdown record of 24. 

“We just got to win games and that’s all I’m concerned about,” Howard said about looking at the record.

Finally, after a turbulent season at times, everything is about winning. The controversy is over. All the questions are answered. Still, one thing remains through it all.

“Iron” Will Howard.