Phil Howard knew he had surprised a lot of people.
Just more than a week after the Gophers’ Outback Bowl victory last January, the Robbinsdale native entered his name into the NCAA transfer portal. The receiver-turned-cornerback had one season of eligibility left and knew if he wanted to play, his best chance might be on another team.
But after Howard registered his intent to transfer, he started to waver. He wasn’t sure if leaving his home, deserting his teammates and quitting on himself was really the right choice. It was his best friend on the team, fellow cornerback Coney Durr, who ultimately put Howard on the spot.
“He was like, ‘Are you sure?’ ” Howard said Tuesday. “And I couldn’t answer it. So I was like, ‘I guess not.’ ”
After almost two weeks, Howard removed his name from the transfer portal and decided to stay put alongside his beloved teammates, even though that meant continuing to struggle for playing time behind Durr and Benjamin St-Juste.
Howard just planned to stay ready in case his opportunity ever came.
It did this past Friday against Iowa.
St-Juste tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the game, meaning he’ll have to sit out 21 days, which amounts to three games. That opened a spot for Howard to make his first defensive start.
The Cooper product ended the game, a 35-7 loss, with three tackles and a pass breakup and also helped out as a punt returner.
His family, including mother LaTonya Criss, was at TCF Bank Stadium to watch, something that’s always been important to Howard and another reason why transferring never quite felt comfortable.
“Phil is always about being loyal,” Criss said. “… He really, really loves Minnesota. It’s true to who he is. So I think he just was like, ‘This is home for me. This is where I want to be.’ ”
Howard will have another opportunity Friday against Purdue, a team with two dangerous receivers in David Bell and Rondale Moore.
Moore has yet to play this season because of an injury but was an All-America honoree as a freshman.
Bell is averaging 107 receiving yards per game, second in the Big Ten. He has 31 catches for 321 yards and four touchdowns.
Purdue (2-1) will be another challenge for an inexperienced Gophers defense. But Howard might bring a new dynamic alongside fellow fifth-year senior Durr.
Howard and Durr have been fast friends since joining the program in 2016 and were roommates along with now-NFL receiver Tyler Johnson.
Howard was a bit of a renaissance man in high school, playing receiver, quarterback, defensive back and special teams. But he began his Gophers career at receiver, starting seven of 11 games in 2017 before appearing in nine the next season.
Late in 2018, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck asked Howard to switch positions, knowing the team was thin at cornerback, and Howard would likely not play much behind the likes of Johnson and Rashod Bateman.
Defensive end Boye Mafe said Howard is an example of what this Gophers program is like, how the players within it are selfless and would do anything for each other, even sacrifice playing a certain position or opportunity for more playing time at a different program.
Last season as a full-time cornerback, Howard played 11 games and made five tackles, forced a fumble and nabbed an interception. But he’s still learning, and Durr is like his personal coach, a consistent presence since the Gophers have had a different secondary coach ever season under Fleck, with Paul Haynes currently leading the cornerbacks.
When Howard first made the switch, he said he talked to Durr every day. Durr would sit him down for film sessions and point out what he was doing wrong and how to handle certain situations.
“I’m like, ‘What does that even mean?’ ” Howard recalled how overwhelming it was at first. “And really, I had to learn how to pedal. I had to learn how to press and all that stuff like that. It was like, from running forward to running backward.”
Those sessions continued into this offseason, when the COVID-19 pandemic stalled regular team practices. The pair would find an empty field somewhere to work on technique and help Howard gain more experience, which he said is vital to success at cornerback.
And that’s part of the reason why he’s likely to take advantage of the NCAA’s ruling to grant every athlete an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19’s impact on sports.
“I’m a school guy, so any way I could get a free education,” said Howard, a sport management undergrad currently working on his master’s degree. “… I basically told myself that I will probably be taking that extra year.
“So look to see me in 2021.”