By Dave Wagner
After a standout football career at Portales High, Jeff Howard found himself struggling to decide where he wanted to play in college.
His father, Eastern New Mexico University offensive coordinator Mike Howard, wasn’t much help. After all, he and the rest of coach Bud Elliott’s staff at ENMU figured Jeff would end up in a Division I program.
At one point, the elder Howard told his son that he needed to make up his mind.
“He said, ‘You guys didn’t even make me an offer,’” Mike Howard said. “I said to let me talk to coach Elliott, and coach Elliott said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to have him.’”
The rest is history. Jeff Howard has been a two-year starter at linebacker for the Greyhounds, leading the team in tackles last season as a junior en route to All-Lone Star Conference South Division honors.
Staying home is a decision the Howards said they don’t regret — even though Jeff Howard may have an opportunity at a pro tryout at some point and no doubt would have gotten more exposure at a major university.
“I didn’t really ever second-guess it,” Jeff Howard said. “I’ve really enjoyed my time here.”
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Howard leads a veteran ENMU defense, which reports this week for the start of practice. The Greyhounds open the season against Central Arkansas on Aug. 28 at Blackwater Draw.
He had looks from several Division I programs coming out of high school, including Indiana, Colorado State, Texas Christian University and the University of New Mexico.
“I got letters from quite a few people,” he said. “If I’d chosen anywhere else, it probably would have been Indiana or New Mexico.
“I went (to Indiana) for a visit. It was neat going up there. I got to meet (then-IU quarterback and current Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver) Antwaan Randle El. But it was a long way away.”
It was also a long way away from his girlfriend, fellow PHS graduate Laci Lee, who was recruited out of high school by some Division I basketball programs.
Likewise, she ended up at Eastern.
“We were both getting recruited by D-I schools, but they weren’t the same ones,” Jeff Howard said. “We just decided that this was the place we could go.”
Coming to ENMU as a linebacker, Howard finished his freshman season when Clovis High product Kane Sweet was sidelined after several concussions. Since then, though, he’s helped anchor the defense.
“I thought he might go D-I; I thought he might have a chance because of his family,” said ENMU defensive coordinator Mark Ribaudo, referring to Mike Howard’s connections with coaches around the country. “But there were other factors in his decision.
“I didn’t want to put any pressure on him or his family. If he wanted to come here, I really wanted him to want to be a Greyhound.”
Mike Howard, in his eighth year at ENMU, said he felt the same way.
“(Jeff) said, ‘I’ve watched Eastern coaches coach. Dad, I can be coached by coaches here as good as they are at Indiana,’” Mike Howard said. “That made me feel good.”
Jeff Howard is looking forward to a season in which ENMU will have plenty of senior experience on both sides of the ball. The Hounds are trying to make the NCAA Division II playoffs for the first time since moving up to that level in the 1980s.
“Ultimately, that’s the goal,” he said. “We only lost three or four guys (off the two-deep) for a defense that was ranked 17th in the nation.”
A biology major with a pre-med emphasis, Howard has used his field of study to help him prepare his body for the rigors of football.
“I think he might be the hardest-training player I’ve ever been around,” said Ribaudo, also entering his eighth season at Eastern. “He does a lot of research on it, and takes a scientific approach to his body.”
While he has pro aspirations, Jeff Howard said it’s important to focus on the upcoming season.
“That’s a dream of mind,” he said of playing in the NFL. “Lord willing, it’ll come true. I’ve been working pretty hard this summer on my strength and speed and vertical jump. Now I just need to have a big year.”
He knows he would probably have to add some weight to play at the next level, but said it’s more important to be able to use his athleticism.
“The biggest thing is just being able to run,” he said. “Any coach will tell you that if you can’t run, you can’t play.”
Mike Howard said things will eventually sort themselves out. “To be honest with you, it’ll be what it’s supposed to be,” he said.
“I really leave that up to smarter people than me,” Ribaudo said. “But I can tell you this — he’s a dang good player and a good leader. I just want him to have a great experience and have our team grow.”