This Saturday when the UT-Martin Skyhawks take the field against Missouri State in the first round of the FCS playoffs emotions will be high and nerves will be abound for essentially every player, coach and fan. It’s the playoffs after all; win or go home. These guys should have all these feelings in a game like this, especially the seniors. For one senior, though, the pomp and circumstance of the postseason might mean a little more.
For UT-Martin QB Keon Howard, this contest will serve as the culmination of a collegiate career defined by perseverance and grittiness. Howard’s road to this point has been anything but straight and narrow. All the twists and turns, however, led him to the right place at precisely the right time. Now he has the opportunity to end his college playing days the way every kid dreams of: playing do-or-die football.
Howard hails from Laurel High School in Mississippi where he put up stellar numbers (over 11,000 career pass yards and 108 touchdowns) and won two state titles. Such efforts earned him a three-star recruit ranking by 247sports and garnered well-deserved attention from local colleges, including Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles landed Howard as commit in 2015 and so began a long, wild ride.
In his freshman year at USM, he had an up and down season that was quite limited. Only appearing in three games that fall, Howard attempted just 50 passes and threw one touchdown alongside four interceptions. Southern Miss went 7-6 and won the New Orleans Bowl, however Howard did not play in that game. Serving as a backup to then-starter Nick Mullens, his time on the field came at a premium.
That playing time increased significantly a year later in 2017. Howard played in nine games for the Golden Eagles as a sophomore and and USM enjoyed another winning season. He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark that season and threw eight touchdowns, helping Southern Miss to an improved 8-5 record. Again, though, when bowl season came around Howard was left on the sideline. In that year’s Independence Bowl, he looked on as fellow quarterback Kwadra Griggs piloted the offense in a 42-13 defeat against Florida State.
He had seen respectable time while with the Golden Eagles but ultimately Howard wanted more. Who could blame him? Standing on the sidelines for bowl games doesn’t exactly leave a feeling of fulfillment in most players and Howard certainly had the talent to be the guy somewhere else. That somewhere else, he hoped, just so happened to be a longtime rival of Southern Miss.
Following the 2017 season, he entered the transfer portal and headed to Tulane to play for Willie Fritz and the Green Wave. Playing in New Orleans would come with its own set of challenges though. Per NCAA transfer rules Howard would have to sit out the 2018 campaign and even when he got back on the field he would have to compete with one Justin McMillan for playing time.
McMillan, who was a grad transfer at the time, earned the starting role over Howard in 2019 but again Howard would serve as a dependable backup. That season he only appeared in four contests but threw for 208 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Green Wave compiled a 7-6 record and dominated none other than Southern Miss in that year’s Armed Forces Bowl. Once more, however, Howard did not get to play in the game and for a third time he would wait in the wings as a reserve watching someone else lead the team in a postseason game.
2020, though, in spite of all its real-world problems spelled a certain hope for Howard. McMillan was gone and the opportunity was there to finally claim a starting role. At long last he finally got his chance when Fritz announced that fall he would be the team’s QB1 heading into the season.
In the opening game, Howard led Tulane to a win over South Alabama, throwing for 191 yards and rushing for a touchdown. Finally it seemed things were looking up for the young man who had patiently waited his turn. It had the makings of a feel-good story that everyone could get behind.
It was just one week later while facing Navy, however, that it all fell apart. After storming out to a commanding 24-0 lead at halftime, Tulane watched helplessly as the Midshipmen came all the way back and sunk them 27-24. Howard had a completion percentage of 40%, threw no touchdowns and tossed a pick in the defeat.
He was on a tight leash following the collapse and was benched in the very next game against his old team in favor of then-freshman Michael Pratt. He had just attempted two passes in the contest.
After the 2020 season in which the Green Wave again went to a bowl game but Howard again did not get to play in it, he opted to try the transfer portal one last time. He had received his degree from Tulane but still had a year of eligibility left. This time around, however, Howard opted not to try another FBS program. His talents could be better utilized with an FCS team and ultimately he settled on UT-Martin.
Unlike his previous two stints, Howard found immediate success this season with the Skyhawks. Being a grad-transfer he was eligible to play immediately and earlier this year he earned the starting role for head coach Jason Simpson. From there he had a season unlike any other in his college career.
This fall Howard threw for 1,811 yards and 15 touchdowns. On top of that he rushed for another 474 yards and 10 more scores. Those efforts helped UT-Martin to a 9-2 record and the program claimed its first ever Ohio Valley Conference championship. UT-Martin is in the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and all of this happened with Howard calling the signals. He received OVC Offensive Player of the Week honors twice in 2021 and the OVC Newcomer of the Week three times. On Tuesday he was named the OVC Offensive Player of the Year.
So again, perhaps this weekend’s playoff game will mean just a little more to the guy who had to try it at three different schools before he finally found his spot. A lot of players have bumps and hurdles in their careers but not a lot of guys get the chance to ride into the sunset the way Howard can. It would take a lot for UT-Martin to win a national title this year or even get there for that matter. But even if the road comes to an end this weekend in Missouri, he is finally getting his chance to play meaningful football at the end of the season and perhaps no one deserves it more.