For the first time in a long time, Keon Howard is in a true quarterback battle.
The Laurel native is taking first-team snaps alongside redshirt junior Kwadra Griggs during fall camp at Southern Miss — a situation that the sophomore isn't terribly familiar with.
At Laurel High School, he was the man.
He took over as the starting quarterback as a freshman and led the Golden Tornadoes to a record of 42-11 over four seasons. His best moment came in 2014 when Laurel beat Oxford 29-26 for the Class 5A state title.
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Howard was a good athlete and had one of the strongest arms in the state. He also happened to work with a talented batch of receivers. Omar Bayless, who is now at Arkansas State, and Ole Miss tight end Octavius Cooley were among Howard's targets as a Tornado.
When Howard signed with Southern Miss as a late commit in 2016, he was one of the biggest names in the class.
With Nick Mullens returning for his senior season, Howard knew he had a redshirt season awaiting him in his first year in nearby Hattiesburg.
When Mullens and backup Parker Adamson went down with injuries on Nov. 5, Howard was forced into duty.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Howard mostly played like a freshman, sometimes showing some of the traits that made him a star at Laurel. He also turned the ball over far too much, including four lost fumbles and an interception in a 51-35 loss at Old Dominion.
Howard also started at North Texas, throwing three interceptions in a 29-23 defeat.
'Look in the mirror'
USM offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is confident that Howard's two starts in 2016 will serve as a teachable moment.
"Keon is great at self-assessment," Dawson said. "One thing you wish for is players to have the ability to look the mirror and not be delusional. Keon is a talented kid, but if he were sitting in front of you he'd tell you he didn't perform as good as he could have.
"Taking care of the football is a big part of that when it comes to the games he played. I love the way he was hard on himself. All the great players I've had have been able to look in the mirror and say that one is on me. I love that about him. It's only going to make him better."
While Howard may be his own biggest critic, it will be up to Dawson and head coach Jay Hopson to decide if he's progressed enough to take the opening snap against Kentucky on Sept. 2 in Hattiesburg.
Howard doesn't mind the scrutiny.
"I've been getting watched since I was in ninth grade so it's just come out and treat it like a normal day," Howard said. "It's football. You've just got to enjoy it, have fun with it."
While Griggs appeared to have a slight edge on Howard at the end of the spring, there's no clear favorite to be the USM starting quarterback this season.
Griggs is taller at 6-foot-3, but both are strong-armed quarterbacks with the ability to take off with the football. A bright spot for Howard last year was his 44 rushes for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
Whoever is behind center will have a strong receiving corps to rely on. Senior Allenzae Staggers leads the group after catching 63 passes for 1,165 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
"We have one of the best receiving corps in school history," Howard said. "We have a lot of speed guys and young guys who can come in and contribute."
Howard and those receivers put in the work this summer to make sure they'd click from the outset of fall camp.
"Wide receivers play a big part in the judgment of who wins the battle," Howard said. "It was just going out there late at night around 12 or 1 in the morning in the sand pit and on the field with those guys. It was just getting those reps when nobody is looking."
If Howard does show improvement throughout fall camp and grab the starting job, there should be a healthy number of Laurel fans at Roberts Stadium this season.
"It's a great opportunity and not just for me, but the city of Laurel," Howard said. "Coming from a place so close to here, I'll give it the best I've got and let the dice roll where they roll."