MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — When Skyler Howard arrived at West Virginia 18 months ago, he looked like anything but a savior at quarterback.
Stop-gap? Maybe. Fill-in? Perhaps. But a full-fledged starter in charge of one of college football’s most dynamic offenses seemed beyond his capabilities.
Howard, though, has become the clear-cut favorite to start in the Sept. 5 opener against Georgia Southern.
A work in progress who completed only 9 of 22 passes for 121 yards in the spring game, Howard has emerged as the favorite because he’s the most game-ready quarterback on the roster.
“He’s probably the hardest worker on this football team,” coach Dana Holgorsen said.
Howard’s consistent play and grasp of the offense short-circuited an anticipated quarterback duel that resulted in redshirt freshman William Crest, who was expected to push Howard for the starting job, taking snaps as a receiver in the spring game.
Although Crest’s move isn’t permanent, the switch solidified Howard’s status as WVU’s first-string quarterback — at least for now.
“Last year, mentally, I wasn’t on the same level,” said Howard, who made two starts in 2014 and passed for 829 yards and eight touchdowns and no interceptions in 110 attempts.
“We can talk about things that weren’t even in the picture last year. It puts us on a different playing field,” he said.
Holgorsen said Howard isn’t a finished product, mentioning after the spring game that Howard needs to improve his passing accuracy.
However, the coach was quick to praise his quarterback’s arm strength.
“We were way more successful throwing the ball downfield this spring than last spring, and last spring we had Kevin White and Mario Alford on the outside,” Holgorsen said.
With White and Alford gone to the NFL, Howard is developing chemistry with new targets such as senior Jordan Thompson and junior Dakiel Shorts, who combined for 73 receptions and 944 yards with four touchdowns last season. Sophomore Shelton Gibson provided a deep-ball threat in the spring game.
“I’m not really a ‘favorite’ guy. I throw to the open guy. That’s my ‘favorite’ guy,” Howard said. “Jordan’s done a good job of getting open. He’s real savvy because of his experience, but they’re all doing a good job getting open.”
“Everyone thinks because we lost Kevin and Mario, no one can fill their shoes,” said junior running back Rushel Shell (Hopewell). “We have so much talent at wide receiver. Now they’re getting their chance.”
Shell said an increased emphasis on running the ball will ease Howard’s transition to full-time starter.
“We ran the ball a lot last year, more than Coach Holgorsen probably ever did,” Shell said. “We can really help open up the passing game.”