Two years ago, one of the most highly thought of quarterbacks and No. 2 overall prospects in the 2020 class was at the Maxwell Awards where he was set to be honored for his accomplishments while playing at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif. Also at the Maxwell awards that night was a three-star prospect from Downingtown, Penn., with just five Power 5 scholarship offers to his name.
Two years later, Bryce Young – the former five-star prospect and potential No. 1 overall draft selection – and Will Howard – the backup turned starter in each of his first three seasons – are opposite each other in the 2022 Sugar Bowl at No. 5 Alabama and No. 9 K-State prepare to play for the first time in program history.
Young and Howard met that night two years ago as they each received recognition for their accomplishments as high school passers. Yet, their paths to the Sugar Bowl couldn’t be more contradictory.
As a freshman in 2020, Young served as the backup to Mac Jones, who helped lead the Crimson Tide to their sixth national title under head coach Nick Saban. Young played in nine games during his first college season and completed 13-of-22 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown. In 2021, as a sophomore, Young set Alabama records in passing yards (4,872) and touchdowns (47) as he won the Heisman, an SEC title and helped Alabama make it to Indianapolis for the College Football Playoff national championship.
This season, Young continued to cement himself as one of Alabama’s greatest quarterbacks ever as he became the first quarterback in Alabama’s storied history to throw for at least 3,000 yards in two seasons.
Howard, though, wasn’t as fortunate. He started the final seven games of the 2020 season as a true freshman and struggled – a lot. He completed just over 53.5 percent of his passes and had more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (8). In 2021, when he was expected to return to the backup of Skylar Thompson, Howard was forced to play in five games and, again, completed less than 55 percent of his passes. He had been written off by many K-State supporters, but Wildcat head coach Chris Klieman believed that his team had the “best backup” quarterback in the country in 2022.
When Nebraska transfer quarterback Adrian Martinez was removed from the TCU game because of a knee injury, Howard – who anticipated redshirting in 2022 – stepped in under the lights against the Horned Frogs and threw a pair of touchdown passes and rushed for another. The next week against another ranked opponent he had his best college game completing four touchdowns with just a tick under 300 passing yards in a 48-0 victory. Then, he returned to the bench against Texas when Martinez made his return in a game that K-State would lose at home.
Still looking to redshirt his junior season, Howard was, again, thrust into action at Baylor when Martinez, for the second time, left the game with a leg injury. Howard proceeded to complete three touchdown passes in a blowout win over Baylor.
The junior had taken control of the starting quarterback responsibility and three weeks later helped K-State win their first conference title in a decade when the Wildcats avenged their loss to TCU in the conference title game with Howard throwing two touchdown passes and 199 yards in the win.
“If you were to ask any Kansas State fan if Will Howard would be the quarterback in a Big 12 Championship game a couple of months ago, I think they would have told you that you’re crazy,” Howard said.
Prior to the 2022 season, both Young and Howard spent time in California where they trained for the upcoming season during spring break. While the two briefly interacted in 2020, they spent more time together – in a less formal setting – which allowed Howard to build a better bond with the future first-round selection.
“Everything about him, he seems like a good dude talking to him,” K-State’s quarterback said.
While practicing together, Howard took note of Young’s talent and ability as a passer. Months later when K-State was preparing to play Texas, the Wildcats watched film of the Longhorns’ game vs. Alabama in Week 2, a game in which Young led a game-winning drive on Alabama’s last possession.
“Some throws he’s making,” Howard said, “he’s a stud. It will be fun to play against a guy like him.”
Many expected Young – and Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson — to not play in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve. Instead, the expectation was that the two would choose to opt-out of the bowl game to stay healthy and prepare for the NFL Draft. But both made the decision to play, what is likely, their last game at Bama on Saturday.
“It’s kind of interesting that people opt out of playing for their team,” Saban said. “And the way you create value for yourself is to play football. That is the best way you can create value for the future. And when you do that against good competition, I think that creates value for your future.”
Two years ago, neither Young nor Howard had ever experienced much, if any, failure on a football field in their careers. Hence, why the two quarterbacks were together at the Maxwell Awards as high school standouts. But two years later, Young’s talent still hasn’t failed him.
Howard’s, though, failed for the first time in his life on the football field in 2020 and 2021. It let him gain a new perspective on the sport, and made him appreciate his triumphs even more in 2022.
“I knew I could do it,” Howard said. “I just knew I had to show it. Getting that opportunity this year, flipping the script, was huge and will be big for me going forward.”