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WVU football: Big hands could benefit new quarterback

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Shannon Dawson is aware of what others will be once West Virginia opens spring football practice and gives curious fans a look at quarterback Skyler Howard.

WVU's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach knows Howard's size.

"Big hands mean you can control the ball better," Dawson said. "When I watch a quarterback throw, I look to see how far his hand stretches on the ball and where the pinky finger is on the laces.

"I don't have big hands. My hands are 8 3/4 inches. An NFL team wouldn't even let me be the manager. But I do look at them and see if they have really good placement on the ball and really big hands. I tend to gravitate toward that more than height."

Howard is a redshirt sophomore who enrolled last month and can participate in spring drills with the Mountaineers. His hands are somewhere between 9 1/2 and 9 3/4 inches long, Dawson said, which is one reason he recruited Howard from Riverside (Calif.) City College.  

"It's right under 10 inches, which is not bad," Dawson said. "Not bad for a 5-11 guy, I guess."

And there's the size that has onlookers concerned. Howard is 5-foot-11, "short," as Dawson says to the person looking for the right way to put it, and at the minimum it's a different look for an offense that's sent a 6-2 quarterback to the NFL and used one 6-5 and two 6-2 starters last season.

But other than that appearance, is it going to look any different with Howard getting a heavy dose of the spring snaps? He's the new guy. The coaches mostly know about senior Paul Millard. Clint Trickett, who had a 2-5 record as the starter last season, is injured and won't participate in drills this spring.

The Mountaineers say no. Dawson points to the success of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, an under-recruited high school star in Texas who wound up playing at Purdue. Coach Dana Holgorsen conveniently mentions Howard's idol is Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who slipped into the third round of the NFL draft and just won a Super Bowl.

Plus, they say, the offense is played mostly from the shotgun or the pistol, which lets quarterbacks get a look at the defense before the snap and without the nuisance of a backpedal. Surveying the defense before a snap is especially important for WVU because almost every pass play can be changed to a run and every run play changed to a pass based on what the quarterback sees before the bullets start flying.

After that, the Mountaineers' offense is a lot like most others.

"I think the way offenses are today, the offensive line splits are a little wider, which allows you to see a little better, but the spacing of the offenses probably makes height a little bit less important than it has been in the past," Dawson said.

With the offensive line fanned out more than it has been before, quarterbacks of any size can find alleys to see, throw and run through, but the overall space from sideline-to-sideline creates bigger windows and larger gaps between defenders.

If the throw isn't there, one of Howard's most promising attributes for the Mountaineers is his ability to move and make a decision to run or throw. WVU didn't have that with Millard and Ford Childress last season and was only beginning to see the benefits of what Trickett could do better than the other two before he suffered a season-changing shoulder injury, one that required surgery in January.

"He's an athletic kid," Dawson said of Howard, who won't be allowed to speak to the media during spring practice because he's in his first semester with the team. "One thing we did like about him was his ability to extend plays. A lot of his bigger plays were extended when he kept his eyes down the field. He did a really good job with those."

Howard's legs contributed to his gaudy stats during his one season in junior college after redshirting and transferring from FCS school Stephen F. Austin. Howard was a walk-on there who was actually moved to running back in the spring. He ran a little more at Riverside, gaining 343 yards on the ground, but he was dynamic with his arm. Howard completed 67 percent of his passes for 3,151 yards, 33 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Dawson and Ryan Dorchester, WVU's recruiting coordinator, picked Howard out of a group of junior college quarterbacks they'd targeted. They passed his name and film along to Holgorsen, who liked what he saw and gave Dawson approval to start the recruitment. Dawson went to California to watch Riverside play Golden West in the Southern California Bowl. Howard ran 11 times for 23 yards and completed 17 of 19 passes for 198 yards and three scores in a 27-17 win.

"The game was impressive, but we'll see how it goes," Dawson said. "That's basically the recruiting process for everybody, but he hasn't taken a rep yet."

Dawson said both teams had seven or eight Division I players. Riverside finished 10-2 and lost its conference championship game to end the season, but also had wins of 71-0, 41-0 and 40-0 and outscored teams 500-285.

"I think there can be a stigma for every kid you recruit about the competition they can play," Dawson said. "The kid can't control it. I don't really hold that against him. It's California junior college. The overall competition is pretty good. You're going to play some teams that are a little better than others, but that's true on every schedule. To be honest with you, I didn't even look at that."

The Mountaineers offered Howard a scholarship soon thereafter, the first offer from a FBS school, and the competition for his services began. New Mexico State and San Diego State soon followed with offers in pursuit of JCGridiron.com's No. 4-ranked dual threat quarterback, but Dawson was confident the Fort Worth, Texas, native would choose the Mountaineers.

"I knew the offers he had and I knew he was a Texas kid," Dawson said. "A lot of the schools that were showing him attention were all west coast schools. The ones that were listed, obviously we were going to beat regardless. The ones that were showing interest I him - Utah and Cal were two teams in there the same time I was - him being be from Texas, he wanted to play in the Big 12, period. I really wasn't worried about most schools from the west coast when it came to him."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.


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