The Gophers wide receivers sat in a meeting last November, game-planning for Northwestern, when coach P.J. Fleck interrupted to call Phillip Howard into his office.
Suddenly, those college students reverted back to high school boys when one of their classmates had to meet with the principal. They all looked at each other with not-so-subtle smirks, basically communicating, “Uh oh, Phil, you’re in trouble!” with their eyes.
Howard, though, knew he hadn’t done anything wrong. And Fleck, indeed, wasn’t singling him out for punishment. Instead, it was to ask his player to make a big sacrifice.
“He was like, ‘All right, here it is: I want to move you from receiver to [defensive back],’ ” Howard said. “… Pretty much a man-to-man conversation. And I told him, I’m willing to do whatever, whatever it takes. And here we are.”
Here is coming off Howard’s first career interception at Rutgers on Saturday, which he nabbed on his first defensive snap of the game. As mainly a special teams contributor, it was a breakthrough for the former Cooper star.
The defense certainly celebrated as if Howard’s interception was a game-saving play in the Super Bowl instead of a second-quarter snag in an eventual blowout victory. That’s because his teammates know what Howard gave up and how hard he worked to adapt to his new position.
Fleck was pretty blunt in his reasoning for moving Howard, telling the player he was going to have a difficult time playing behind Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas. At the time of the switch, the Gophers were thin at defensive back because of injuries, but Fleck also felt cornerback suited Howard. Now, the coach said, Howard has been a key player this season despite going largely unnoticed.
“He’s got great feet, really loose hips,” Fleck said. “… When you have a wideout playing corner, you can make more plays because they have more natural ability to catch the ball.”
Howard’s mom actually joked to her son on the phone after the Rutgers game that he must have thought he was still playing receiver with that interception. Johnson said something similar to his roommate and fellow Minneapolis native he played against as a kid.
Johnson remembered the offense coming off the field after failing to convert a fourth down and seeing Howard going in at cornerback. He said he had a feeling his friend could make an interception on that play, but he didn’t say it out loud so as not to jinx it. Howard proved him right when he high-pointed the ball.
“I wanted to celebrate with him so much,” Johnson said. “But I had to get back on the field. So I hurried up and grabbed my helmet. I ran over there. I’m yelling. But it was just a crazy feeling.”
Johnson ended up sending Howard an “emotional text” after the game about how proud he was. The receiver room is tight-knit, with Johnson saying the wideouts didn’t fully grasp Howard’s move until they saw him wearing the defense’s color jersey in practice. But Howard feels like he’s never fully left that room, even if he was a little heartbroken when they had to kick him out of the group chat.
Now, though, he’s finding a new family with the defensive backs. He’s learned technique from Coney Durr, Terell Smith, Kiondre Thomas, Benjamin St-Juste and Antoine Winfield Jr. Durr and Winfield smiled at him knowingly ahead of his interception when Howard’s legs shook with adrenaline. Thomas told him just before that play to focus on his details. Safety Jordan Howden gave him the call.
“I was so stuck in the moment,” Howard said. “And then I see all the guys embracing me, and I’m just like, this really just happened to me right now?”
But for Howard, this was much more than just an interception, especially thinking of other kids from Minneapolis who look up to players such as him and Johnson.
“There’s a lot of hope that comes with that, seeing kids from where we came from, to know that they can do it as well,” Howard said. “… It was a lot of emotion that went through that moment as well. But it was still fun.”