Why Will Howard is better prepared to lead Kansas State's offense the second time around
Sophomore quarterback to make first start of the season
MANHATTAN — Kansas State coach Chris Klieman has called him the best backup quarterback in the country. Wide receiver Landry Weber refers to him as a second starter.
By all accounts, K-State's confidence in Will Howard is not an issue. Not for his teammates and not for Howard himself.
Good thing too, because for the second straight season, the Wildcats are hitching their wagon to the sophomore quarterback after senior starter Skylar Thompson went down with an injury.
"That's our guy," running back Deuce Vaughn said of Howard, who will make his first start of the season and eighth of his career at 1 p.m. Saturday when the Wildcats play host to Nevada at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. "He's the next man up and we're right behind him.
"We are all going to rise up with him and we're going to play some football. I have 100% in Will Howard and what he can do."
As was the case last year when Thompson suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Texas Tech in early October, Howard came off the bench Saturday and led the Wildcats to a 31-23 come-from-behind victory over Southern Illinois.
Thompson's knee injury, which came midway through the first quarter, is not expected to be season ending, but for the time being the ball is in Howard's hands.
His performance against SIU was uneven at best, including an interception for a Saluki touchdown that cost K-State the lead late in the first half and a lost fumble on a sack right before intermission.
But he also helped the Wildcats complete a first-quarter drive with a 1-yard touchdown run and led them to another score in the second period. They also drove for a field goal in the third quarter to take the lead and marched 59 yards for a score late in the fourth that helped secure the victory and improve to 2-0.
Last year, Howard guided the Wildcats to wins in his first two starts, only to see them finish the season on a five-game losing streak.
So which Howard will K-State see against a Nevada team coming off victories over California and Idaho State to start the season? Despite his struggles in the second quarter last week, the Wildcats insist there is no comparison.
"His preparation was really good last year (but) I don't know that his skill set was as ready as it is now," Klieman said of Howard, who was thrown into the mix as a true freshman just months out of high school. "He's 240-plus pounds, he's stronger (and) he's more aware of what the situation is. He's more aware of what we're doing offensively."
Howard completed 8 of 17 passes for 76 yards against SIU. And even when he wasn't at his best, he felt more at ease than at any time last year.
"It's always tough kind of getting thrown in there like that, but it feels like the pace of the game is slowing down a lot for me," Howard said. "There were times that I made bad decisions and there were some times that I made bad throws, but overall I feel like I'm seeing the field a little better than I did last year."
Weber said having a full week to prepare with the first-team offense should help Howard make a leap forward against Nevada.
"It's big. You find a few more reps and you get some reps with those receivers that you're going to be throwing to," Weber said. "We've been getting some balls with him after practice and we're just getting on the same page, watching some extra film with him.
"It was great for him to get that experience under his belt last year, and the dude's a fighter and the dude's tough, and he'll fight and claw and find a way to win for us. We have all the faith in the world in him."
More importantly, Howard shares that faith.
"We've been here before," he said. "This isn't our first rodeo with this, so we're just trying to take it one day at a time, one play at a time.
"Just an attack mentality every day, just thinking one play at a time (and) not taking any steps back. I think I've got a good feeling about this weekend."