MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Darrien Howard’s status as West Virginia’s nose tackle would appear more solid than the chunk of coal on display outside Milan Puskar Stadium.
Former starter Kyle Rose graduated, sophomore Jaleel Fields is beginning months of rehab from knee surgery and redshirt freshman Alec Shriner remains in development.
This is Howard’s spot. He’s comfortably ahead of the competition, but Howard cannot let himself be comfortable.
“I’m still playing scared, scared that somebody’s going to take my job,” he said. “Nothing’s given to you. So regardless of where I am, I have a lot to work on.”
If not for unforeseen circumstances, the senior would have two years remaining to be a difference-maker in the middle of the Mountaineers’ defense. During 2013, nine weeks into a projected redshirt season, injuries led the freshman to fill in for a team that finished 4-8. Howard’s sophomore year opened with similar designs to redshirt until he was needed in eight games, albeit for only 50 plays.
Last season he emerged as Rose’s agile understudy, participating on 335 snaps, and now comes what feels like a too-soon final season, a last grab for validation. If only Howard thought in those terms.
“By the grace of God I am what I am”
Howard was a child when he first heard Corinthians 15:10, not at all realizing it would become his favorite verse.
“You’re at Bible school and you’re 8 or 9 years old, so you really don’t pay attention,” he said.
As family members kept reciting it, Howard became more familiar, at least in rote, until hearing one of his father’s friends discuss it a few years later “in a different way.” Suddenly the scripture crystallized and awakened him.
“It made more sense, and the older I got, the more I understood it. The more it started to take effect.”
By ninth grade, Howard wanted the verse that moved him to become a part of him. When he sought permission for a tattoo, his mom asked for an interpretation about what he treasured. His explanation made her proud enough to say, “OK, you understand what it means, so you can go ahead and get it.”
Now the ink on Howard’s right arm gives testament to labor, gratitude and humility—“By the grace of God I am what I am”—old English script cascading from his shoulder down his beefy bicep.
“It’s what I think about all the time,” he said. “I’m able to wake up everyday doing what I love. Without God’s grace, I’m not able to do that or accomplish anything I want to accomplish.”
Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, with its lineage of national merit scholars and august reputation among Ohio’s top private schools, seems ideally situated next to the 179-year-old Emmanuel Church in downtown Dayton.
“We’re not just an average high school—there’s strong academics here,” said football coach Marcus
Colvin. “Kids are pushed and challenged.”
Kids who excel at sports are no exception, and Colvin wondered whether Howard, upon enrolling in 2009, could keep up.
“He came to us not really ready for high school,” the coach said. “He ended his freshman year kind of behind the eight-ball.”
Soon Howard began meeting with teachers for extra tutoring—sometimes early in the morning, sometimes after school, sometimes bouncing from various rooms during his free period.
“The academics there are no joke,” Howard said. “It wasn’t easy for me.”
Absent that one-on-one attention from instructors, Howard wonders how he would have remained eligible at Chaminade Julienne, much less being prepared to handle college classes. So Colvin beamed recently upon hearing that Howard’s summer GPA at West Virginia exceeded 3.0.
“Sometimes it takes a village and the community here really embraced helping Darrien, because everyone likes him. He’s really a humble giant of a guy. But the main reason it worked out is because Darrien made it work out. He put the time in.
“He’s one of our success stories. Now, he’s going to start at nose guard against Missouri and I’ve got chill bumps thinking about it.”
Howard loved roaming the field as a linebacker at Chaminade Julienne, even when he filled out to 260 pounds as a senior. When conventional wisdom urged Colvin to move his star to the defensive line, Howard’s pursuit of ballcarriers and ability to tackle in space convinced coaches to leave him where he was.
West Virginia middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton plays behind Howard in the 3-3-5 stack and absorbs frequent reminders about how the 300-pounder used to play sideline-to-sideline.
“He lets me know that fact every day,” Benton joked. “He’s always saying, ’You know I used to play Mike.’ But we’re like, ‘Nah, nah, big man. Just go ahead and make your plays up front where we need you.’”
Teasing aside, Benton speculates Howard can run with some of WVU’s linebackers. Just watch 2015’s clip of the nose guard being the only defender in the frame as Baylor receiver Corey Coleman streaked to a 31-yard touchdown.
“You’ve seen it, he can run people down,” Benton said. “It’s a race to the ball—that’s what he’ll turn around and tell me all the time.”
Howard’s grandmother Delores had never made the trip from Ohio to a WVU game. Instead, she spent Saturdays cheering in front of her living room TV. “Big Granny” became especially enthused last season when her favorite Mountaineer became an integral part of the defensive line rotation.
“I would talk to her after my games and I heard how she was rooting and hollering and screaming my name. She even got on my paw-paw’s nerves because she was screaming so loud,” Howard said. “She had such a high spirit, like an energy that you would feed off.”
“But she loved football just because she loved me.”
As Big Granny’s health failed last April, Howard made plans to visit her a month later, during his break before summer classes. Then came a dreaded text only minutes before one of WVU’s spring practices, and Howard scrambled back to Dayton sooner than expected.
After the funeral, Howard dropped in to see Colvin at Chaminade Julienne, his grief palpable.
“We hugged it out and talked about it, and I’m feeling bad for the kid,” Colvin said. “Then Darrien says, ‘Coach, can you open up the conditioning center? I need to get a workout in.’”
Colvin tried to redirect—“You don’t need to focus on football right now, Darrien”—but Howard insisted. He didn’t want to let down the teammates he left in Morgantown, and he certainly couldn’t disappoint Big Granny.
“During times like that, you’d normally shut down and focus on your family,” he said, “but I know my grandmother, and she wouldn’t want me to sit home doing nothing.
“My guys at West Virginia were working out that day, so I needed to work out.”
Colvin realized Howard was serious, popped up from his desk and said, “OK then, let’s go lift.”
Once Howard emerged as a starter during his freshman season at Chaminade Julienne, he never relented. Colvin hadn’t coached someone who poured so much into drills and scrimmages.
“There was something about this kid, the way he loves playing football. It shines through in how he plays, how the energy comes out of him.
“He was like that when he came to us at 15, and now I know he’s going to have a phenomenal year at West Virginia.”
Like that 15-year-old trying to navigate a new high school, Howard still presumes nothing. After three years of working behind Kyle Rose—a big brother-type who kept Howard’s technique on point—there’s a new nose tackle atop WVU’s depth chart. That in itself is not satisfying to Howard.
“I fought for this job every day since I was a freshman,” he said. “And now that I’ve got it, I’m more on edge than ever, because I know I’ve got to keep it.”