Amid the issues that revealed themselves during the Gophers’ 31-24 loss to Maryland on Saturday — a pair of turnovers, a sluggish run game, several missed tackles and some kicking adventures — a bright spot emerged. That was the play of wide receiver Phillip Howard.
Howard, a redshirt freshman and former Cooper standout, started the game in place of the injured Demetrius Douglas and led the Gophers with four receptions for 46 yards. The four catches gave him six for the season, and that ranks third on the team behind Tyler Johnson (15) and Douglas (11).
Howard is slated to start again when the Gophers face Purdue on Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind., and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca sees a player quickly developing.
“Phillip’s really done a great job of continuing to learn, taking advantage of every opportunity to learn and build from the meeting room to the practice field, from the practice field to the game field,” Ciarrocca said of Howard, who is not allowed to speak to the media because he’s a freshman. “If you think about springtime or training camp, he’s a much better player.”
That improvement was apparent in the second quarter when quarterback Conor Rhoda hooked up with Howard for a 19-yard completion to the Maryland 34-yard line. Though the promising drive ended with an interception, Howard showed he would be a factor in the game. The 5-11, 187-pound speedster added three catches in the second half, and had a 12-yard reception on Minnesota’s tying drive in the fourth quarter wiped out by an offensive pass interference penalty.
“Last week, with his first start and everything else, I didn’t think the moment was too big for him,” Gophers wide receivers coach Matt Simon said. “For him, it’s the simple focus of being able to make plays.”
That Howard is contributing is a credit to his development and the support system around him. His roommate is Johnson, the former Minneapolis North standout who played against him while growing up in Minneapolis. In fact, Johnson said Howard, who already had committed to Minnesota, recruited him to join the Gophers.
“He’s like my blood brother,” said Johnson, a sophomore. “When I see Phil doing great, I’m just very happy.”
Howard and Johnson both played quarterback in high school, so together they have made the transition to college wideout. They’ll bounce ideas off each other as they develop as receivers, and they’ll motivate each other when needed.
“If one of us is tired and leaning over — leaning over is not accepted here — I’ll go over there and lift him up,” Johnson said, “and he’ll do the same if I’m leaning over.”
Also impressed with Howard is senior receiver Eric Carter, who’s become a mentor to the young wideouts.
“I’m very happy with his progress,” Carter said. “Just being able to see him as a freshman, seeing him as a recruit — it’s pretty fun to watch him grow. … He’s like a little brother to me.”
Ciarrocca wants Howard to continue to improve as a pass-catcher. That should come with experience, he said.
“He can catch the ball better. But catching the ball better usually comes along with when you’re not thinking anymore,” Ciarrocca said. “That’s why you’ll see young receivers at times drop a number of balls — a higher percentage that you would think a normal receiver should drop — as freshmen and sophomores. Then when they’re juniors and seniors, they don’t drop any.”
Howard is not there yet, but he got off to a promising start after answering the Gophers’ next-man-up call with Douglas lost for the season.
“You look at guys like Phillip Howard, guys like Eric Carter, [they’re] guys who stepped up,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “We just need more of ’em.”