Jerry Howard’s formative years in football were spent playing the offensive and defensive lines because of his size. But instead of knocking opponents down as a blocker, Howard uses that heft to run foes over these days.
The 6-foot, 215-pounder, who plays for powerhouse Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, SC, has developed into one of the top running backs in the Palmetto State. Howard has racked up more than 2,000 yards rushing over the last two years, including 1,570 as a junior in 2015 while helping the Trojans to the state 4A Division II championship.
The performance earned Howard his first college scholarship offer in December from Football Championship Subdivision Western Carolina. Other schools followed suit with Air Force, Appalachian State, Charleston Southern, Charlotte, Colorado State, Gardner-Webb, Navy, Old Dominion, Towson and Western Kentucky eventually extending scholarships.
But a familiarity with East Carolina, which extended an offer in February, led Howard to make a verbal commitment to the Pirates on June 21.
“We run the same offense here at Northwestern, which was a big plus for them,” Howard said. “But I also know people up there, some friends who told me about the school and how my freshman year would go.”
Those “friends” include former ECU linebacker and current graduate assistant Brandon Williams and current Pirate cornerback Cory Seargent, both of whom also played at Northwestern. Williams came to ECU as an invited walk-on in the summer of 2011, but went on to earn a scholarship and a starting job by his senior season in 2014. Seargent enjoyed an impressive freshman season with the Pirates in 2015, appearing in nine games at cornerback and on special teams.
“I talk to those guys a bunch, but especially Cory,” Howard said. “I know his little brother, and they are always talking. He (Seargent) told me how important it is to focus on the school work as a freshman and the rest will come with ease.”
The commitment to Howard by ECU’s coaching staff was also a determining factor.
“It came pretty clear when I sat down with my coaches and my family,” Howard said. “They were like, ‘There are a lot of teams looking at you who want you to come to campus. They (ECU) offered and haven’t even looked at you in camp or said you needed to come to a camp.’ ”
Earning a college scholarship to play football is a pretty big deal for a guy who describes himself “on the chubby side” when he started playing the game in the third grade. As a result, Howard found himself assigned to the offensive and defensive line positions where he spent most of the next two years before getting a shot at running back in the sixth grade.
Howard stayed at running back when he arrived at Northwestern and spent his first season splitting time between the school’s freshman and junior varsity teams. Adding about “20 pounds of muscle” between his freshman and sophomore years, Howard made an impressive varsity debut in 2014 by rushing 85 times for 609 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 33 passes for 294 yards and three more scores.
Northwestern’s drive to the 2015 state title featured Howard running and catching the football. He racked up 1,570 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns on 199 carries, while also contributing 39 receptions for 388 yards and six touchdowns.
Howard was at his best when it counted most for the Trojans. In a 30-22 state semifinal victory against Nation’s Ford, he ran for 276 yards on 20 carries and scored three times. He capped the season by gaining 148 yards and scoring two touchdowns on 16 rushes in a 63-13 rout of Lexington in the state finals.
Howard calls his 95-yard touchdown jaunt in the fourth quarter against Nation’s Ford a personal highlight for the season.
“They had punted and we took over on our five-yard line,” Howard said. “We were going to run something up the middle, but our coach changed it and said to run an outside zone play. I just took off and went 95 yards to the house.
“A lot of people think I’m just a power back, but I think that showed my breakaway speed. When people ask me about my style I just tell them keep your eyes open and don’t blink because it could be quick and you might miss something amazing.”
Howard will spend this summer working hard in hopes of leading Northwestern to another state championship in 2016. He’s also continuing to listen to other schools that are continuing to pursue him in recruiting.
“A lot of ACC schools and Big Ten teams have been talking to me,” he said. “Georgia Tech was talking to me and offered based on my test scores. But as of right now East Carolina stands as my No. 1.”