HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - It every bit of the spring football practice and summer camp for sophomore Keon Howard to find out that he would get his first start of the season as the University of Southern Mississippi's quarterback.
It took USM's coaches about all of six days to let him know he'd be starting his second.
With junior Kwadra Griggs hampered by a banged up hand, Howard was tapped for the fourth start of his career and his second of this season Saturday at the University of Texas-San Antonio.
Howard certainly responded, turning in arguably the best game of his short career as a Golden Eagle, coming up with a 212-yard, three-touchdown performance in the Golden Eagles' 31-29 Conference USA victory at the Alamodome.
"He played well," USM coach Jay Hopson said. "He ran the offense well. He threw the ball extremely well. Had a couple of really nice passes and put it right in the breadbasket.
"He made plays. I was pleased with his performance."
Particularly in the second half.
Howard, who netted 29 yards rushing yards as well, completed 11 of 12 passes in the third and fourth quarters for 163 yards and two scores: a 20-yard pass to junior Korey Robertson and a 48-yarder to freshman Quez Watkins off a perfectly-executed flea-flicker.
Howard also threw a 32-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to junior tight end Jay'Shawn Washington.
"I thought he was on the money," USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said Monday afternoon.
Dawson said the first touchdown pass, a crisp throw to Washington, was huge for Howard.
"Any athletic game is about confidence," Dawson said. "He needed to go out and have success and he did."
Dawson estimated Griggs was about 60 percent healthy last week, making the call to go with Howard a fairly easy one.
"Its' about doing what's going to give you the best opportunity to win games," Dawson said.
Griggs had started the Golden Eagles' last two games, throwing for 520 yards and four touchdowns with ne interception as USM split games with the University of Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas University.
Hopson said both Howard and Griggs will be evaluated through the week before the coaches determine who will be the starter for USM (3-2, 2-2 C-USA) when the University of Texas-El Paso (0-6, 0-2) visits M.M. Roberts Stadium at 6 p.m. Saturday.
"We're waiting to see," Hopson said. "You know how it is with injuries. We're just trying to wait and see. Kwadra can play, but is he going to be 100 percent? I don't know yet. So, we just watching. We'll go out here and just watch the first couple of days this week.
"Certainly, we're blessed to have two, young men playing well at the position. We just have to see how it looks on the practice field. That's all you can go by."
After being sidelined since cracking a bone in his arm in the Sept. 2 season opener with the University of Kentucky, sophomore left tackle Drake Dorbeck returned Saturday and provided two, big blocks on two of the game's biggest plays.
Dawson said Dorbek's seal on UTSA's defensive end helped spring senior running back Ito Smith on a school-record 89-yard scoring run.
"He doesn't get that block, that guy makes the tackle," Dawson said. "It was nice pick up by him."
Dorbeck said he simply followed instructions the linemen had received from USM offensive line coach Erik Losey.
"We were on the sidelines, and Coach Losey had noticed some of the things that they were doing and was showing us what we were going to do if they did it again," Dorbeck said. "It was awesome because Coach Losey had just drawn it up on the sideline and we got exactly what he drew up.
"Got the defensive end blocked, and Ito was out of the gate."
Dorbeck also had the block on the left edge of the pocket that held together long enough for a flea-flicker of a touchdown pass that took some time to develop.
Howard handed off it Smith, who stepped toward the line, then stopped and pitched the ball back to Howard, who then found freshman Quez Watkins with a 48-yard touchdown pass.
"The pressure was on the left side, but Quez got open and Keon trusted the pocket and made a play out if it," Dorbeck said.
Dawson said the bit of razzle-dazzle was a high-risk, high-reward situation.
"I'd told the guys this week that it could be a very successful play or a debacle," Dawson said of the.
Dawson was asked what it meant to get Dorbeck back on the field.
"More than people know," Dawson said.
Shuffle 'em up
Dorbeck's return led to some shuffling that affected three of the offensive line's five positions.
Senior Jerry Harris, who had started the past three games at left tackle in Dorbeck's absence, made his first career start at right tackle. Sophomore Ty Pollard, who had made 14 consecutive starts at right tackle, made the first start of his career at right guard.
Freshman Arvin Fletcher made his fifth consecutive start at left guard and senior Devin Farrior did likewise at center.
Dorbeck said it felt like a second, first game for him.
"I was nervous all week," Dorbeck said, "because I knew it was going to be my first game to play all the way through.
"It was pretty frustrating (being injured). To go through all of camp and then just as you're getting to play, you're down when it matters."
Injuries also necessitated some shifting with the USM defense.
With both senior middle linebacker Sherrod Ruff and junior strong-side linebacker Walden Davis sidelined by injury, USM defensive coordinator Tony Pecoraro slid sophomore Paxton Schrimsher from the hybrid defensive end/linebacker slot known as "wolf" into a rotation at the inside linebacker slots with junior Jeremy Sangster and freshman Racheem Boothe.
"I found out Monday morning," Schrimsher said. "I got a message from coach that he wanted to talk me, and when I got there, he was like, 'Dude, we're down to like two linebackers,'" Schrimsher said. "I was like, 'Yeah, sure,' and so that's kind of how it went.
"I started practicing there last week, and by Thursday, I felt pretty comfortable with it. It turned out to be a lot easier than I thought it was going to be."
Pecoraro said Schrimpsher originally had been slotted as a linebacker last year until, ironically, injuries necessitated his move to "wolf."
That's why we asked him," Pecoraro said. "He did a great job."
With Schrimsher in the middle, junior Darrian Yancey and senior Allen Fails will handle the "wolf" position. Yancey made his 18th career start and his first this season last week.
"I'm confident those two guys can handle it," Pecoraro said.
USM nominees for C-USA players of the week for the UTSA game, including:
Offense - Smith, who turned in his third consecutive 100-yard game, finishing with 178 yards a touchdown on 17 carries. Smith, who has scored in USM's last four games, averaged 10.5 yards per carry Saturday against the Roadrunners.
"I felt like Ito played his normal, great game," Hopson said.
Included in Smith's total was an 89-yard touchdown run, which was the longest scoring run in USM history. Smith, who logged his 19th career, 100-yard rushing game, moved into second place on USM's career rushing list with 3,736 yards, moving past Derrick Nix, 3,584 yards; 1998-2000, 2002) and Ben Garry (3,595 yards; 1974-77).
Smith, who was named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Week Monday, has recorded two of the top 10 rushing games by a USM senior in his last three games. Smith rushed for 217 yards on Sept. 16 in a 28-17 victory at La.-Monroe.
Defense - Senior defensive back Curtis Mikell, who came up with a momentum-swinging interception in the third quarter. Mikell stopped a UTSA scoring threat with his end zone pick and his 61-yard return ignited a three-touchdown explosion by USM's offense.
"We needed that interception," Pecoraro said. "Just a huge, huge momentum play for our defense."
Mikell also finished with seven tackles (six solo), including a tackle for loss.
Special teams - Freshman Briggs Bourgeois, who knocked five of his six kickoffs for touchbacks. UTSA's average starting field position was its own 27-yard line.
In USM's last three games, Bourgeois has drilled 13 of his 16 kickoffs for touchbacks.