MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Even while touting the ballyard play-making ability of quarterback Skyler Howard, West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson couldn’t resist ribbing his undersized transfer.
“He’ll say he’s 6-foot, but whatever,” Dawson cracked.
Lucky for the 5-foot-11 Howard that height isn’t the overriding measurable to which Dawson prescribes. Otherwise West Virginia would not have become the first power-conference program to pitch a scholarship toward the Riverside (Calif.) City College freshman last fall. And Howard wouldn’t be preparing for an extended spring audition to become the Mountaineers’ quarterback.
Until last November, only New Mexico State and FCS doormat Northern Colorado had floated offers. Yet Howard, armed with the same self-assurance he carried when college recruiters ignored him coming out of high school in Fort Worth, felt he possessed Division I skills. What’s more, he was in the midst of a 3,000-yard juco season that proved it.
Across the continent in Morgantown, a funny bit of symmetry was transpiring when Dawson and WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester independently perused game film from a specific pool of junior-college QB candidates. They evaluated guys who operated shotgun systems and were eligible to enroll midyear, and Howard came out No. 1 on both lists.
Soon Dawson was off to Riverside to make the dual-threat Howard an offer he wouldn’t refuse.
“I knew the offers he had,” Dawson said. “The ones that were listed, obviously we were going to beat them regardless. The ones that were showing interest in him—like Utah and Cal … I really wasn’t worried about the West Coast schools. He’s a Texas kid and he wanted to play in the Big 12.”
And for once, a Big 12 school wanted him.
No longer was Howard being eliminated simply on the basis of his non-ideal stature.
“Being 5-11, that hurts you,” Dawson admitted. “If it’s between that and a guy who’s 6-2, you’re going to go with the 6-2 guy.”
Yet as Dawson explained last week, he has long valued hand size over height when gauging a quarterback’s potential.
“Big hands mean you control the ball better,” he said. “So when I watch a quarterback throw, I look to see how far his hand stretches on the ball and where his pinky finger is on the laces.”
When Howard visited WVU in early December, Dawson took an opportunity to measure the prospect’s hands and came away encouraged. “I think his was 9-3/4 (inches) or 9-1/2, which is not bad,” the coach said. “Not bad at all for a 5-11 guy.”
As Dawson recounted this palm-reading episode, the measure-maniacs at the NFL combine were reveling in Johnny Manziel’s 9-7/8-inch mitts—atypically large for his 5-11 height. Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arian said hand size remains “something that is highly underrated” among evaluators, and noted quarterbacks guru George Whitfield Jr.—who tutored Cam Newton, Andrew Luck and a pre-Heisman Manziel—told The Cleveland Plain Dealer that prodigious paws are especially beneficial for passers dealing with inclement weather.
“I’ve been saying this stuff for a few years,” said Dawson, before adding with a chortle: “Maybe I’m not as dumb as people think I am.”
He certainly will seem smarter if Howard slings touchdown passes in Morgantown like he did at Riverside. Unlike recent quarterbacks Dawson and Dana Holgorsen have developed, Howard possesses dangerous speed and blitz-beating elusiveness.
“Are we going to add a lot of new plays that are going to allow him to run it? No. But is there flexibility within our offense for him to make plays with his feet? Hell yeah, there is,” Dawson said.
“Anytime the coverage is good, then extend the play. It’s hard for DBs to cover for four or five seconds. Skyler’s an athletic kid. A lot of his bigger plays (last year) were extended plays when he kept his eyes downfield.”
Eyes certainly will gravitate toward Howard this spring, in light of senior Clint Trickett rehabbing from shoulder surgery. Those extra reps during the next five weeks could make the newcomer competitive once the full assortment of quarterback contenders assemble in August.
Whatever the result of Howard’s transition, Dawson doesn’t think height will play a determining factor.
“The O-line spits are a little wider, which allow you to see a little better, and with the spacing of offenses it probably makes height less important than it has been in the past,” he said.
“The throwing has to be the easy part. The intangibles are what pushes you over the edge. Are you a winner? Are you a leader? How much do you care about playing quarterback?”