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December 5, 2015: West Virginia Mountaineers quarterback Skyler Howard (3) during the NCAA Big 12 football game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Kansas State Wildcats at Bill Snyder Family Memorial Stadium in Manhattan, Kansas. Kansas State defeats West Virginia 24-23 (Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire)

WVU’s Skyler Howard has chance to become elite Big 12 quarterback

Skyler Howard’s small frame doesn’t scream “high-level, collegiate starting quarterback.” He is barely six feet tall and weighs a mere 205 pounds. Yet, he has a chance to become one of the Big 12’s elite signal-callers in his last season at West Virginia.

Last season there was a debate about whether Howard had the talent to be a starting Big 12 quarterback. At times, he performed poorly. An example emerged in a 40-10 loss to TCU: 16-of-39 passes for 160 yards, a touchdown and an interception. However, the Fort Worth, Texas, native finished the 2015 season proving he has the talent to be a quality signal-caller in a conference known for them.

In his final three games last year, Howard threw for 1,015 yards and seven touchdowns, including a 532-yard performance against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Cactus Bowl. For the season, Howard threw for 3,145 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while completing 54.3 percent of his passes.

“As a kid you want to be one of the elite quarterbacks,” Howard told the Associated Press.

While Howard certainly has the ability to become a top-tier quarterback, his road to the front step of that opportunity was a winding, twisting path.

In high school, Howard was a promising and talented athlete, but due to his short frame, no school–including West Virginia–offered him a spot. Despite this, he continued to pursue his dream of playing collegiate football and arrived at his first stop, Stephen F. Austin.

An 18-year-old Howard decided to walk on at SFA, but he did not last long in Nacogdoches due to the fact that the Lumberjacks saw him as more of a running back than a quarterback.

That wouldn’t do for the man who believed he was good enough to play the position he loves. He headed to pit stop number two, Riverside City College in California.

“I’m a quarterback,” Howard said to SI’s Campus Rush. “That’s what I do. Once that switch was made, I felt that my odds of gaining a scholarship somewhere were a lot higher at quarterback than running back, and at the time it was the best choice for me.”

During his lone year at Riverside City, Howard started the season as the backup quarterback. In the first game he was put in late, led Riverside City to victory, and became the man under center for the rest of that year.

In that season, Howard put up astonishing numbers. He lead Riverside City to an 11-win season while throwing for 3,151 yards, 33 touchdowns and six interceptions and adding 343 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

Although Howard fixed his throwing mechanics and performed admirably in the JUCO ranks, his national reputation barely grew. While earning an offer from the Mountaineers, he also got offers from small schools such as Northern Colorado and New Mexico State. He drew interest from Virginia Tech and San Diego State as well.

Howard arrived in Morgantown in 2014. During his first season in the blue and gold, Howard served as the primary backup behind starter Clint Trickett, a productive signal caller when healthy. However, when a concussion sidelined him in 2014, Howard stepped in and started the final three games for West Virginia. In those three games, he threw for 829 yards and eight touchdowns.

Looking at his statistics from last year, Howard has two areas he needs to improve upon this season: accuracy and interceptions. As previously mentioned, he completed only 54.3 percent of his passes and was intercepted 14 times–the second most in the Big 12–last year. Yet, according to West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, Howard has been improving every day throughout the offseason.

“It’s (his improvement) good,” Holgorsen said to bluegoldsports.com. “He’s pretty confident. The last time he played live football he threw for 560 yards, second all-time in the history of West Virginia football in its storied past.”

At first glance, Howard’s chances to enter the realm of elite Big 12 quarterbacks look pretty slim due to the fact that his competition is Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph and Baylor’s Seth Russell. Looking past the competition, however, he has the necessary pieces around him to challenge his competitors for a spot among the best gunslingers in the conference.

Howard has three factors working in his favor: an experienced offensive line, a talented and deep group of receivers, and an offensive scheme that is known to produce eye-popping quarterback numbers.

West Virginia has the best offensive line in the Big 12 entering the 2016 season. It is anchored by center and Rimington Trophy watch list recipient Tyler Orlosky. The projected starting offensive line for the Mountaineers has over 50 career starts. That is enough experience to make sure Howard is comfortable in the pocket for the full season.

The Mountaineers’ receiver unit is led by junior speedster Shelton Gibson and reliable senior Daikiel Shorts. Last year, Gibson was a deep-threat target who averaged 24 yards per reception. Shorts caught over 60 percent of the passes thrown his way last season. Junior Ka’Raun White, who displayed flashes of greatness last year, will also give West Virginia a deep stable of pass-catching talent.

This offseason, the Mountaineers lost starting running back Wendell Smallwood to the NFL Draft. West Virginia should therefore re-emphasize the pass. Holgorsen’s aerial offense has produced the likes of Graham Harrell, Case Keenum and Geno Smith–all among the best quarterbacks in their respective leagues as collegians.

Howard’s quest to achieve exalted quarterback status has been complicated, but by playing with a chip on his shoulder throughout his entire collegiate career and having the necessary pieces around him, Howard has the ability to entire the stratosphere of elite Big 12 quarterbacks.

WVU’s Skyler Howard has chance to become elite Big 12 quarterback

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