COVINGTON, Ga. — Newton assistant coach Josh Skelton summarized perfectly the precarious spot Neal Howard found himself in on a Saturday afternoon in early October when Newton faced then-No. 3 Archer.
The Rams pounced on the Tigers early with a pair of quick touchdowns to take a 12-0 lead. They were driving for a potential 19-0 advantage before halftime when starting quarterback Myron Middlebrooks got uprooted from the pocket and drilled into the Sharp Stadium turf by an Archer defender.
Enter Howard. A 5-foot-10, 154 pound signal caller who hadn’t really played in a real, live game since middle school.
“Neal literally went from eighth grade football to Archer in one day,” Skelton said. “That’s crazy, isn’t it?”
That’s because Howard sustained a broken arm during the summer of his freshman year that essentially sidelined him for all of 2016. It was a major setback in his quest to learn the quarterback position behind Middlebrooks who was a two-year starter.
“I was throwing the ball sidearmed and not over the top with it when I hurt it,” Howard said. “I guess I threw too hard, and it was like a bone in my elbow separated from my arm. It was so tough to have to watch and not be able to play, but I think it actually helped me get better.”
Howard said the rehab process on his arm aided him in not only strengthening it, but improving his throwing motion and reinforcing the importance of doing it the right way. Mechanics aside, Howard’s matriculation from clipboard carrier to Class AAAAAAA starter was indeed a swift baptism by fire.
“I was really nervous at the Archer game,” he said. “But coach Grant and (head) coach (Terrance) Banks coached me up real well. They prepared me for that moment. They’d always told me to be ready because my time was coming, and when my time came, I was ready.”
Howard played about as admirably as one could expect from a sophomore quarterback seeing his first high school action against one of the best teams in Georgia’s largest classification. He finished 8-for-18 passing with 67 yards and an interception. He had one carry for six yards, and despite him being in ultimate game manager mode, Newton almost did enough to pull out a monumental upset.
Still, even in scoreboard defeat, it was a victory for Howard. When you start your career on the fly against the No. 3 team in the state, things can only get easier.
“As soon as that first play happened, and I got the ball and got that behind me, I was comfortable,” Howard said. “I went out there and performed to the best of my ability. And I had my teammates who had my back.”
Howard finished the season admirably, throwing for 577 yards at a near 60 percent clip with five touchdown passes to three interceptions in four complete games as starter. His high water mark was the final game of the season in a first round playoff game at Parkview.
Howard hit 16 of 24 passes for 170 yards with a touchdown pass, a two-point conversion pass and no interceptions in Newton’s 42-35 overtime loss to Parkview. After that game, Banks stated his pride in how the young quarterback was “growing up right before our eyes.”
Meanwhile, Howard took pride in the fact that he played well enough to win a high-stakes game.
Fast forward to Newton’s spring game at highly regarded Salem where he only misfired on three passes and threw for over 100 yards and a couple of scores while helping lead the Rams to a 45-6 pasting of the Seminoles, and Howard believes he’s truly starting to find himself.
“The game has definitely slowed down very much for me since that Archer game because I’ve started to understand the offense and I’m learning how to lead my team more,” he said. “At first, I didn’t really know how to do any of that. But coach (Camiel) Grant and Myron, they’ve really helped me learn and grow.
Much of that growth work has revolved around Howard sharpening the cerebral aspect of his game.
“They’ve sat down with me to watch film and helped me know what I’m looking at,” he said. “They’ve gone out to practice to teach me how to read things, how to see what the safeties and corners do and how to know what coverage they’re in, and coach Banks sat down with me personally before every game last year to make sure I knew what to do.”
But now there’s an added dimension to Howard’s quest to continue leading Newton’s offense.
Mississippi transfer LT Stowers has come over, complete with a rocket arm and several years of varsity experience to match his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame. It guarantees a bonafide battle for starting signal calling duties in 2018.
And while Banks is playing it close to the vest, stating, “you’ll know who’s the starter on Friday August 17 at 7:30 p.m. against Alcovy,” Howard said he appreciates the competition and camaraderie with Stowers, but he’s not going to roll over and relinquish the place he fell into late last season.
“The competing with LT has been positive,” Howard said. “He gives me some competition and I haven’t had that in a long time. He helps me get better and I make him better. But I want (the starting job) very much, and I’m very confident in myself that I can do what it takes to lead my team.”
Howard provided his own comparison-style scouting report of the two signal callers.
“We’ve got similarities, but I think I read (defenses) a little better than him right now,” he said. “He throws it better as in his power. He’s got a lot of power in his throwing arm, but I think I’m more accurate.”
But who would win in a foot race?
“Me,” Howard said quickly, with a laugh.
And of course Howard has a leg up in that he’s more familiar with Newton’s version of the spread offense, although Stowers has said he ran something somewhat similar during his junior year in Mississippi.
But none of that means the rising junior will rest on his laurels. With a major opportunity to cement his short-term football future in front of him, Howard said he’s preparing and working as if he has none of the aforementioned advantages on his side.
“This summer I’m really focused on continuing to learn how to read the defenses,” he said. “I’m perfecting my learning of the offense now since we’ve installed two new plays. I want to know them like the back of my hand. I’m also working on footwork and physical appearance. I want to get bigger, faster, stronger. I’m like 154 pounds now. My target weight is 175.”
How it will all play out is still up in the air, but one thing not in doubt is how Howard says the experiences from Archer to now have helped tighten the bond with his teammates, coaches and even his parents.
“From rehab of my arm to last year, my team, my coaches, everyone’s been so supportive,” he said. “My mom and dad have helped so much too, taking me everywhere I need to go to get the training I need to be better.
“Throughout everything, and no matter what, I know they all have my back and they know I have there’s.”