Howard’s beginning

Mark Schneider

The head football coach at Arizona’s Saguaro High School needed only one look at Loren Howard’s 6-foot-3, 225-pound frame before he knew. Howard was meant to play football.

That was four years ago, when Howard was a freshman on the Saguaro basketball team. Today, he is regarded as one of the top defensive line prospects in the nation and the marquee signing of the Northwestern football team’s 2002 recruiting class.

“I just told him his future was going to be on the grass and not the hardwood,” Saguaro football coach Stuart Goldstein said. “I saw him in the weight room, walked him out to the football field and he told me he never played football before. I told him his future was going to be on that field. He trusted me.”

Howard began his high school athletic career as a basketball player, earning a spot on the varsity basketball team as a freshman. By his senior year, however, Howard had grown to 6-foot-4, 280 pounds and had retooled himself into one of the best prep football players in Arizona.

“I was worried about basketball taking the front seat and football the back seat, but he really bit into this,” Goldstein said. “He put in the time to become the No. 1 defensive lineman in the state of Arizona.”

In Howard’s senior year, he led the Sabercats to a 12-1 record and the semifinals of the state playoffs, registering 64 solo tackles, 36 assists, 10 sacks, 24 hurries, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks.

“He was a leader,” Goldstein said. “He demanded that everyone work hard and play hard.”

Howard was rewarded handsomely for his stellar senior year. Besides garnering the Curley Cup Award, given to the state’s top interior defensive lineman, he was named the second-best prospect in Arizona and the 19th-best defensive lineman in the nation by Superprep recruiting magazine.

And Howard said he hopes to be a better player by the time he reaches NU.

“I’ve been training real hard, getting faster and bigger and stronger,” Howard said. “I’ve cut my body fat down to 8 percent.”

Howard will join an NU defense that struggled mightily during the 2001 season, ranking last in the Big Ten in points allowed (34.3 per game) as well as total defense (467.5 yards allowed per game). The team finished with a conference record of 2-6, tied with Minnesota for last in the Big Ten.

With the graduation of seniors Kevin Bentley, Billy Silva and Napoleon Harris, three of NU’s best defensive players in 2001, the emergence of new talent will play an especially important role on the Wildcats’ 2002 squad.

The addition of Howard is one of the biggest reasons why NU head football coach Randy Walker has spoken highly of this year’s recruiting class, his third for the Cats.

“This is a very strong class,” Walker said on Signing Day. “There are several players in this class who can come in and make an immediate impact. This group fits in well with our previous two classes.”

The impact that incoming freshmen will make in the fall remains to be seen, as many will likely redshirt the upcoming season.

Whether Howard will sit out in 2002 or begin his college career as a true freshman will be determined by the coaching staff and based on his performance during preseason training camp, the 18-year-old said.

“I hope to come in and shine, to impress the players and coaches and fit in real well as a team member,” Howard said. “Hopefully when I get my shot, I’ll make the most of it. I would like to start as a true freshman and before I leave be All-Big Ten, maybe even Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.”

The decision to come to the Big Ten wasn’t easy for Howard, who received scholarship offers from 42 Division I schools. His older brother, Phil, is a senior defensive lineman at Arizona State, and the idea of playing alongside him was enticing, Howard said. Howard narrowed down his choices to Arizona State, Washington and NU before finally determining that the Cats provided the best overall package.

“I just felt I fit in the best with the players and the coaches and what-not,” Howard said. “It was a difficult decision, but I think Northwestern was the best place where I can get a good education and play some big-time football.”

Although NU’s football program boasts three Big Ten titles in the last seven years, it was ultimately academics that tipped the scales.

“The thing about Loren is that he looked at the education first and most kids look at the football first,” Goldstein said. “He’s a smart kid. He understands how important academics are.”

Although Howard developed into one of high school’s top football prospects, his experience playing the game is limited. A basketball player his first two years of high school, Howard didn’t take up football until his sophomore year, playing at the junior varsity level. As a junior he dropped hoops to focus solely on varsity football. Nonetheless, Goldstein asserted that with Howard’s athletic ability and maturity, making the transition to Division I college football will not be a concern.

“How’s he going to handle it at Northwestern? He’s going to be freezing his butt off.” Goldstein said. “That’s the only adjustment I think he has to worry about.”

Although Goldstein described Howard as “a balanced player,” he considers stopping the run to be the strength of the defensive lineman’s game. Last season the Cats ranked second-to-last in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 27 touchdowns and 204.9 yards per game. Needless to say, the addition of a run-stopper would be a great benefit to the Cats.

“He could have gone to Miami, UCLA, Washington, wherever he wanted to go, and he picked Northwestern,” Goldstein said. “Northwestern got a steal, a great one.”