Statistically, Heritage Academy football coach Sean Harrison thinks, quarterback Mack Howard’s game against Bayou Academy on Sept. 18 wasn’t Howard’s best.
Which, considering that Howard finished 16 of 27 passing for 217 yards and three touchdowns, is pretty promising.
The sophomore didn’t take any sacks. He didn’t throw any interceptions. He didn’t force any “Brett Favre throws” into dangerous coverage windows.
“He sat back and took what they gave him, and when he does that, he can make any throw,” Harrison said.
For Harrison, Howard’s physical and mental maturation in just the fifth varsity start of his career stood out.
“It was just another big step in him growing up, and the fact that it happened in Game 5 and not next year is huge,” Harrison said.
The game was a sign that in his first season starting, Howard is showing the potential he developed over years of hard work. And it’s paying off: The sophomore is already a Power Five recruit with the chance to go national any day.
“He’s going to be really special,” Harrison said.
Room to improve
Of course, Harrison knew that since Howard was in sixth grade.
That was the year Harrison came to Columbus from Wayne Academy, and right away, he saw Howard’s arm talent and potential as a quarterback.
In seventh and eighth grade, Howard lined up at quarterback for Heritage Academy’s junior high team. The Patriots passed every snap to get Howard reps at the position, and he shredded defenses in the process.
But Howard wanted more. After attending the Manning Passing Academy in seventh grade, Howard’s dad was connected with David Morris, the founder of QB Country in Mobile, Alabama. The organization offers training and development in footwork and body control, throwing mechanics and the mental aspect of the game for college, high school and middle school quarterbacks.
Howard went to Mobile a few times a month the summer after eighth grade to train with QB Country, which touts 2019 NFL starters Daniel Jones, Gardner Minshew II and Devlin Hodges last year. Starkville High School’s Luke Altmyer, a Florida State commit, also trains with QB Country.
Though Howard was raw, Morris saw a talented athlete — Howard plays basketball for the Patriots, too — who could already throw well. Wide receiver Trey Naugher, a longtime friend of Howard’s (and now his top target) said the two honed that skill over years of throwing together after practice ever since playing Pee Wee football in fourth grade.
But there’s always room to improve, and Howard wanted to.
This summer, he came back to Mobile following summer with renewed effort. He and his family stayed about a block away from the QB Country building, and he trained five days a week.
Weight lifting and conditioning filled the mornings, and the quarterbacks came back after lunch to throw for about an hour and then head to a film session where they broke down defensive fronts and coverages.
“It’s just the knowledge that I gain from him, which is huge, and it’s really helped me,” Howard said of Morris.
Morris, meanwhile, said he found Howard so motivated to work hard that he had to slow him down sometimes and just take the football out of his hands.
“On Saturdays and Sundays in season, we don’t need to be ‘grinding’ and training and all that,” Morris told the young passer.
Morris said Howard has cleaned up his bad tendencies and mechanics to the point where he could catch a mechanical error in one of his own throws. Howard’s coach has seen the same.
“He has the best mechanics of any quarterback I’ve ever coached, and I’ve taught him zero mechanics,” Harrison said.
At the end of this summer, Morris put out a video reel of Howard’s highlights on social media. College recruiters began to take notice.
Passing the test
On Aug. 14, a week before his first-ever varsity start, Howard got a call from Harrison.
A coach from the University of Kansas was on the line. He wanted to talk to the quarterback.
Howard took the call. He and the coach chatted. Then the coach offered Howard a scholarship to play for the Jayhawks.
“It was crazy,” Howard said. “It was unexpected, honestly.”
Howard said he was a little nervous about backing up the offer with his play, feeling like he had to be perfect to live up to the Jayhawks’ faith in him.
“That was the only question about him,” Harrison said. “He’d never started a varsity game. How was he going to react?”
So far, Howard has passed that test. He has limited turnovers, gotten rid of the ball when needed and made throws Harrison has never seen someone of Howard’s age and grade make — including a bomb to Wesley Miller against Kirk Academy that went more than 50 yards in the air.
He’s also led the Pats to five straight wins after a season-opening loss at powerhouse Jackson Prep.
“I feel like it’s been great — better than what I even expected,” Howard said. “It’s been awesome just winning.”
To keep climbing toward the next level, Howard has also sought advice from quarterback Carter Putt, who owns basically all of Heritage Academy’s passing records. Putt is now a freshman signal caller for Northeast Mississippi Community College.
“I learned a lot from him,” Howard said.
Putt led the Pats to a 14-0 season and a state title last year, and Howard and Heritage Academy’s 2020 team have the same goal.
But Howard knows that can’t be done without hard work, and he’ll keep putting it in for the Pats.
“The neat thing about Mack is, Mack understands that all that can be gone in a heartbeat if he doesn’t go work for it,” Harrison said.
Morris said he expects a lot more to come from Howard. With two and a half seasons still to play, the quarterback can become — and perhaps will soon be — a recruit on a national stage and a bona fide star for Heritage Academy.
“He’s in a position to really hit a new stride, and I think that’s what you’re seeing right now,” Morris said.
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.