The evolution of Kansas State freshman quarterback Will Howard is ongoing.
Saturday's game against Iowa State could provide a clear window into just how far he has progressed.
After turning the ball over a total of five times in back-to-back losses to West Virginia and Oklahoma State — both solid defensive teams — Howard will again be put to the test when the Wildcats travel to Ames, Iowa, for a 3 p.m. kickoff against the No. 17-ranked Cyclones at Jack Trice Stadium.
Iowa State is 5-2 and leads the Big 12 with a 5-1 mark, while K-State (4-3, 4-2) has dropped into a tie for third.
Howard, who just a year ago was playing for Downingtown High School in Downingtown, Pa., will make his fifth straight start since senior Skylar Thompson suffered a season-ending injury on Oct. 3 against Texas Tech. In the 20-18 loss to Oklahoma State two weeks ago, he showed marked improvement over his three-interception game at West Virginia, but still lost a fumble that went the other way for a touchdown and threw a pick, both in the fourth quarter.
Heading to Iowa State, Howard has had the benefit of an open week to iron things out, and the early reviews were positive.
"He just keeps getting more pictures, especially against our defense, which I think is pretty talented," K-State coach Chris Klieman said Monday. "I thought he had a good week of practice, continues to grow and mature, get better (and) see pictures better.
"We've spent some time watching film and seeing things pre-snap and seeing things post-snap. It doesn't happen overnight for a young kid to be able to feel comfortable, and I still have been impressed with how he's played and how he's handled himself."
Against Oklahoma State, Howard took advantage of the Cowboys' preoccupation with fellow freshman Deuce Vaughn to rush for a career-high 125 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. It added an element to the Wildcats' attack that also had been a major weapon with Thompson.
"I've found that the run game might be a little more of my game now, and it wasn't as much in high school," the 6-foot-4, 230-pound Howard said. "I feel like I've gotten a little faster and feel more comfortable with it here.
"It's definitely a big part of this offense, and I was glad I was able to do that in the running game."
Howard currently ranks second behind Deuce Vaughn on the team rushing chart with 232 yards and two touchdowns. He also has completed 54.4% of his passes for 884 yards and five scores, but with five interceptions.
"He knows and we know that we've got to eliminate the turnover, and hopefully we can continue to improve upon that," Klieman said. "But I'm pleased with his progress."
Howard acknowledged that the turnovers are a concern.
"There’s really not much to say in that respect. It’s kind of just being smart with the football and ball security," Howard said. "We’re going to continue to work on that. Just continue to make throws. They’ve said, don’t hold back. Continue to sling it, but see in front of throws and just hold onto the football. I definitely need to work on that."
Against an Iowa State defense that ranks second in the Big 12 against the run, the Wildcats may again need Howard to carry some of the load if the Cyclones close down the elusive Vaughn on the perimeter. They're allowing just 108 rushing yards per game.
Klieman insisted that even after losing Thompson, the Wildcats won't limit Howard in the run game.
"We have to do what we have to do," Klieman said. "I thought Oklahoma State was really good with taking away our outside run game — some of our perimeter stretch run or jet run, whether it was with Deuce or whether it was with Harry (Trotter) or a wide receiver.
"We're getting better up front, but for us, it's got to be an 11-man offense. We can’t just say it's a 10-man offense and the quarterback's not a part of it. He has to be a part of it for us to be successful."
As for Howard, he sees it all as part of the process.
"I feel like in some ways it’s in leaps and bounds, because you're kind of thrown into the fire and you kind of have to learn as you go," he said. "But at the same time, it’s baby steps and there’s a lot of learning experiences that you have to go through and a lot of tough times that you have to go through to grow in the journey that I’m on right now and that we’re on as a team.
"But I feel like as we’ve gone along, the game has definitely slowed down for me a little bit. I feel more comfortable every game, and I feel like the offense, we’re starting to mesh even more. (I'm) continuing to try and get better with them and just try to be the best leader I can for these guys."