West Virginia's Skyler Howard is counting on a record 2015 bowl performance to help put to rest all that talk that he wasn't talented enough to be a starting quarterback in the Big 12.
Howard heads into his senior season hoping for much more against teams he watched growing up in Fort Worth, Texas.
''As a kid you want to be one of the elite quarterbacks,'' he said. ''But if I'm not, that's OK, too. Because I've never been that guy, actually. I've always came from the bottom. It doesn't surprise me that I've got to work my way up. I'm excited to do it. I like being the underdog because it's what I'm used to.''
Attaining elite status might be difficult considering nearly all the starting quarterbacks returning in the Big 12, among them Oklahoma's Baker Mayfield, Baylor's Seth Russell, Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph.
Lightly recruited and often hearing he was too slow and too short, the 6-foot Howard fought for respect in his first full season as a starter in 2015. He was fifth among conference quarterbacks both in passing yards and total offense, and fourth in touchdown passes. He also threw the second-most interceptions.
The math shows Howard needs to improve his accuracy, and he'll get that chance behind a veteran offensive line and a speedy group of returning receivers.
Howard completed just 55 percent of his passes, throwing for 3,145 yards with 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Although his receivers dropped multiple throws, Howard takes the brunt of the blame.
''My completion percentage definitely needs some work,'' Howard said. ''That's one thing that I'm focusing on right now is just putting the ball in play. If I have more completions, then I have more yards.''
A confidence boost came in the Cactus Bowl, where Howard threw for a bowl-record 532 yards and five touchdowns in a 43-42 win over Arizona State as the Mountaineers ended the season 8-5.
That game let Howard and his teammates ''establish a mentality that we can go out there and do this every game,'' he said. ''It raised our bar higher to expect good things to happen rather than not. I feel like it carried over into the offseason.''
Howard also aims to avoid repeating his mistakes. During losses to ranked teams Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU in October, Howard failed to complete half his throws in each game and was intercepted six times. Three of those came against Oklahoma, when he also had two fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown.
West Virginia was seventh in the 10-team league in third down conversions. Coach Dana Holgorsen wants to give Howard more time as a pocket passer and better hone his timing with his receivers, including on intermediate routes.
West Virginia threw the ball only 41 percent of the time last year amid the emergence of Big 12 rushing leader Wendell Smallwood. Smallwood is now in the NFL, meaning Howard could see his production chances increase.
''Winning games and losing games, everybody points the finger at me,'' Holgorsen said. ''Being effective in the passing game, everybody points the finger at him.''
Top receiver Shelton Gibson, who had 887 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago, has no doubts about Howard's abilities to remain in top form when the season begins at home Sept. 3 against Missouri.
''Me and Skyler had that connection so long ago,'' Gibson said. ''It's just there. He's getting it done with the other receivers. Everything's coming together.''
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