Sep. 18—For Chris Klieman, watching Skylar Thompson writhing in pain last week after another early season injury felt like reliving a nightmare he's not even a year removed from. For Will Howard, being forced into action in medias res and tasked with shouldering the load as the primary quarterback with Thompson was a case of déjà vu. Yet the head coach and sophomore quarterback weren't the only people in Bill Snyder Family Stadium — not to mention those watching the game on television — recalling bad memories from last season.
For the Wildcats' fan base, watching Howard struggle after entering last week's game conjured up images of the 2020 campaign.
It didn't start badly, at least: After taking the field in the first quarter following Thompson's injury, Howard finished the drive with a touchdown run. On the next possession, he led the Wildcats to another touchdown.
But in the remainder of the quarter, he threw a pick-six interception and also lost a fumble — two plays that figured prominently in turning what had been a 21-3 K-State lead into a 23-21 halftime deficit. (The Wildcats rallied in the second half to win 31-23.)
In a sense, Howard's three and a half quarters last week was a microcosm of his 2020 season: initial success, followed by troubles.
In K-State's third game last fall, Thompson suffered an upper body injury that ended his season. Howard, then a freshman, came off the bench and started the final seven games of the season. After winning his first two starts, he struggled in the final seven contests, losing all five and committing turnovers with alarming regularity.
With last week's pick-six added to the tally, Howard now has 11 interceptions against eight touchdowns passes in his college career.
In offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham's estimation, Howard's interception total is misleading. He pointed to last year's game at West Virginia, when Howard threw a career-high three interceptions in a 37-10 loss.
"Two of the three in that, I would have said weren't on him, even though he still gets credit for it," said Messingham, before pivoting to the Southern Illinois game. "I think this past week, he just overthrew the receiver, and the crazy part is, it was the exact same route combination just on the other hash of the ball that he threw to Landry Weber. It was the same play. He drove that ball in there really, really well, and Landry made a nice catch. Same thing coming in the other direction, and it just sailed on him. I think timing wise, he was good. He's just got to throw a better ball."
Regardless, Howard made no excuses for his outing versus the Salukis.
"I know I did not play nearly my best game tonight," he said. "There are a lot of things that I can fix. Obviously I try to prepare like I'm the starter, even this week when I'm in that backup role. But like I said, it's different when you know you're going and getting all the first-team reps."
With Thompson out indefinitely, Howard now is the starter.
He has the full backing of his head coach.
Following K-State's hard-fought win over Southern Illinois, Klieman had little patience for a query regarding his faith — or in the reporter's opinion, lack thereof — in his backup-turned-starting quarterback.
"No," said Klieman, responding to whether his confidence in Howard, ever has wavered. Klieman followed that up with five more words in his next answer.
"A lot," Klieman said, putting a measurement on his belief in Howard. "He'll be fine."
Klieman also repeatedly defended Howard against any assertion the signal-caller played badly.
"He struggled a little bit, but some of it was, credit to Southern Illinois," Klieman said. "They did some really good things. Then he made a big-time throw, on the last drive, to Phillip (Brooks) to keep it alive, because we were starting to wear down on defense. So the kid made a play. Will's a good football player. I've told you guys that. I'm counting on him, if that's the case, to take the lion's share of the one's reps and have a great week and be ready to go."
'We're at the same point as last year'
The issues of last week aside, those around Howard say they aren't worried.
"We're at the same point as we were last year," said offensive lineman Cooper Beebe, the Wildcats' starting left tackle, and thus, the man tasked with protecting Thompson's (and now Howard's) blind side.
Thompson going down this early in the season, he said, is nearly a repeat of last season — one he now believes they're better prepared to cope with long term.
"We've been through that already," he said, noting that the offensive line rallied around Howard in the second half of the win over the Salukis. "(We were) kind of calming him down. And then from there, we were fine."
Klieman said that will be the case going forward, praising Howard's poise in the huddle.
He's not expecting Howard to go it alone, though.
"The thing that we talked about with our players, maybe our offensive line needs to step up and help him out a little bit more," Klieman said. "Maybe our wide receivers, tight ends and running backs can step up and help him more. So it's not all on the quarterback position, just like on defense or on special teams.
"Everybody needs to raise their level of play when you lose a really good player like we did with Skylar (Thompson). It's next man up, and we've got to plug in the next player at whatever position is. But the positions around those guys, the positions on the other side, they have to raise their level of play."
Other teammates are equally assured Howard is up to the challenge.
"(I've got) all the confidence in the world (in Howard)," senior wide receiver Landry Weber said. "It's great that we have two starting quarterbacks on our roster. We hate to see any of our teammates go down, and especially Skylar, who just fought back from that injury, makes you a little sick to your stomach. But there was no drop off in confidence when Will came in. We knew we were in great hands. We're going to get this job done."
Deuce Vaughn, the team's star running back and, like Howard, a member of the 2020 signing class, said having to share the backfield with him last season makes them all the more relaxed a second time around.
"He's the next man up, and we are right behind him. We are all going to rise up with him, and we are going to play some football," Vaughn said. "I have 100% confidence in Will Howard and what he can do. ... Every single week we have to progress, and now that Will is in there, we have another capable quarterback who is going to be able to go out there and get a 'W' for us. He's shown that last year against TCU and teams of that nature."
Vaughn said he believed Howard is more comfortable after going through spring practice and preseason camp; the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the Wildcats' spring practices in 2020, taking away 15 valuable opportunities Howard, then an early enrollee, would have had to begin developing on-field chemistry with his teammates.
"Not having a spring ball last year really affected him," Vaughn said. "I know exactly what he is feeling, because it affected me as well, not having those reps and kind of going into the season having to play at a faster level against bigger players. It really (took) a toll on me. I found myself even feeling much better coming into this season because of the spring ball and the fall camp and everything that we had against a really good defense here at K-State."
After having a chance to grade the film from the Southern Illinois game, Klieman conceded that Howard "didn't play tremendously well" by the coaches' standards — and the signal-caller's own expectations for himself.
"Some of that was, we weren't great in protection one time when he lost the ball. We missed a couple of assignments in some routes where I think the ball's put in the right spot, but we ran the wrong route," Klieman said. "Sometimes you see it from above and you think, 'Boy, what the heck is wrong with the quarterback?' When he's expecting a route to be open in a certain spot and that kid runs the wrong route, then you hold on to it a little bit too long. He's got to make some better decisions when he does have to hold on to it too long, but I look forward to seeing Will have a full week of practice and play the way that he knows he's capable of and we know he's capable of."
Howard said the film review only reinforced what he thought immediately after the game: that he made "two pretty good throws" on third downs, but otherwise, he put the offense in dire straits far too often.
"At the end of the day, if we didn't turn the ball over, if we didn't set ourselves back in the chains a little bit, I think it would have been a much different ballgame," he said. "Credit to Southern Illinois. They're a good team, but we just can't beat ourselves."
Messingham wasn't overly harsh, at least publicly, in critiquing Howard's first action of the season.
"All things considered, I thought he did a good job," said Messingham, who is in his third year as K-State's play-caller and offensive coordinator. "Obviously, there was some adversity, there were some things that were going the wrong way, but I felt like it was big that we went down and scored at the end, the last drive. We took it down and scored a touchdown and had a huge conversion on a throw from him to Phillip Brooks. That, to me, put ourselves back in a situation where we were controlling our own destiny, rather than the other way around."
Klieman and Howard are in agreement on the most important factor that will help avoid further issues, and in turn, lead to better, more consistent play: taking nearly every rep with the first-team offense. That's what Howard did in the spring, as Thompson wasn't yet cleared to participate in the aftermath of last season's injury. As soon as Thompson was full go again, Howard went back to working with the second teamers.
"He still got a lot of reps, but not as many with the Maliks (Knowles) and Phillips (Brooks) and those guys," Klieman said. "Now he'll get back to doing that. I know that he's excited about the opportunity, excited to be 'the guy' from Monday through Friday again, not just step in on Saturday."
Howard said arriving at practice knowing you're the unquestioned starter requires a change in mindset.
"You know it's definitely a lot more reps and (gaining) confidence with that first group, going with the guys you know you're going to be out there with," he said. "Just taking snaps from (center) Noah (Johnson) and throwing to guys like Malik, I feel like this week, every single day (I'm) taking advantage of every single rep and making the most out of it. It's really going to build some confidence for us as a group going into Saturday."
That feeling — "confidence" — is what Howard said was the most essential lesson he learned after being thrown into the fire last year.
"I feel like when I play with confidence, I'm a completely different player. I felt like even though things didn't go perfectly (last week), I just felt so much more confident than I did last year, just throwing the ball and being able to stand in the pocket and make throws," he said. "I feel like, with a week of preparation and reps with the ones, I feel like that's going to improve 10-fold. So I'm excited to see what we do."
Saying you have confidence is one thing; playing like it is another.
When Howard does more of the latter and less of the former, Messingham said, good things are in store.
"He doesn't need to force the plays," Messingham said. "Let the plays come to him and believe in the guys around him."
Howard has a true believer in his backfield mate, at least.
"He is a fantastic person," Vaughn said. "He is somebody I'd like to call a great friend. He is really somebody who embodies everything that I embody, from being a caring person to (being) genuine. He's funny. He's somebody in the locker room who is going to make you laugh, and he is somebody I feel like I can call a best friend for the rest of my life."
'I'm my own biggest critic'
For all the flowery praise Vaughn had for Howard as a person, it will take far more than simply being a locker room leader (and a friend) to win games. Howard is more aware of that than anyone. Along with exhibiting more belief in himself and his teammates during games, he said the work he's put in off the field will pay dividends in the weeks to come, too.
"I feel like my body's different. I've put on some weight and I feel like I'm running better than I did," he said. "Honestly, I just feel like the ball is coming out of my hand better overall. ... I know just as much as everybody that I have some things to fix. We'll get on that.
"I'm my own biggest critic. I've always said that: I'm my own biggest critic. But I feel like my body has changed. I feel more confident in myself overall, and hopefully this week, in trying to revamp and regroup and recuperate, we're going to feel better."
When he's down on himself or needs advice, Howard can turn to his position coach (and K-State great) Collin Klein. Few people know what it's like to be the face of a program better than Klein, who once was a Heisman Trophy finalist.
"Being a leader on the field, everybody kind of looks at the quarterback. It's one of those positions (where) you know everybody's got their eyes on me," Howard said. "I've just got to make sure that I am always (showing the right) body language and always keeping things rolling."
Given the massive microscope on quarterbacks as is — it's the most scrutinized position in sports, after all — Howard said it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the game never changes.
"It's just football," he sad. "As much as the bright lights and as many fans as there are in the stadium, it doesn't matter. It's just 11-on-11 at the end of the day. You've just to go out there and have fun playing the game I've been playing since I was 7 years old."
When he wants to talk about the game from a different vantage point, though, he can go to Klieman.
"Being able to sit down and watch film with him helps a ton, because he's a defensive-minded guy," Howard said. "He gives you that defensive perspective and talks in defensive terms, the terms they would take on that the offensive guys can't really always give you."
Those morsels of knowledge might come in handy as Howard readies for his first start of the season, which will pit him against perhaps the No. 1 overall pick in next year's NFL draft, Nevada quarterback Carson Strong. Howard refuses to sweat it. He knows all about Strong's credentials, how many weapons his adversary has at his disposal, how explosive the Wolf Pack's offense can be when it's humming at full song. But Howard said he doesn't care. He isn't "putting any extra pressure" on himself heading into Saturday's game, which will kick off at 1 p.m. at Bill Snyder Family Stadium. The Wildcats, Howard said, are confident "in our ability to score points, to produce offense."
Through all the ups and downs Howard already has experienced in just 10 games as a collegian, one can't dismiss that at least some of his self-belief stems from the team's — especially Klieman's — belief in him.
At Big 12 media days, Klieman said the Wildcats had two starting quarterbacks, putting Howard's name on the marquee beside Thompson's. Following K-State's win over Stanford in the season opener, Klieman said that Howard is "the best backup quarterback in the country."
Those words meant the world to Howard.
Now, he'll try to reward those acclamations with action.
"Coach Klieman is great, and I wouldn't rather play for any other coach in the country," Howard said. "Knowing that he and all the other coaches, they just kept pounding, 'You have all of our confidence.' They do a great job of telling me that and keeping me going and (keeping) the entire offense (going) as well.
"Noah and all those guys, they just keep telling me, 'We believe in you' and I keep telling them the same. We all believe in each other, and I think we've got a really, really good foundation for what we can do going forward."