As a healthy running back, a rarity for Cornell football at the moment, freshman S.K. Howard knew he was going to get his first touches at the varsity level in the Red’s 28-16 loss to Bucknell Saturday. Only he didn’t expect to lead the team in carries by final whistle.
Without sophomore Harold Coles and junior J.D. PicKell, and senior captain Jack Gellatly only seeing the field in the second half, Howard quickly shot his way up the depth chart at running back. And after the primary back junior Chris Walker left the game following a crushing hit immediately after a 19-yard reception, Howard popped into the top two.
“I knew I was going to play but I didn’t think it was going to be like this,” Howard said. “I wasn’t counting on Chris going out, obviously. It really just came down to trusting the line and knowing the guys in front of me were going to do their job and make something of whatever they had.”
When called upon, Howard made himself known — to both the Cornell and Bucknell sidelines. The freshman out of Georgia ran for 73 yards on 18 carries, just 26 yards less on two fewer carries than Bucknell’s All-Patriot League selection Joey DeFloria. Howard also had one catch for four yards for 77 total yards on the day, all of which came with just one appearance in the first quarter.
“I think he is going to be a good player for us,” said head coach David Archer ’05. “It was a lot for a freshman. Quite honestly, he wasn’t ready to play, but he was forced into being ready due to injury. He’s going to have a really good future here.”
“It was definitely a jump from JV and high school,” Howard admitted. “It’s something I’m going to have to get used to.”
Being thrown into an offense when the only experience you have is in the JV games would be hard for anyone. Luckily for Howard, Coles took him under his wing to try and prepare him as best he could for Saturday.
“The biggest thing for me was knowing the offense,” Howard said. “Not that I wasn’t nervous at all moving up, but it was more stuff like the mental preparation and knowing the plays quick because we get going sometimes. …. Harold was out this week and he was a really big help for me. Everyone has just really taken me in.”
Since the injury-riddled backfield is expected to return to some level of normalcy by the time Brown comes to town next weekend for Homecoming, Howard’s exposure at the varsity level his freshman year could be short-lived. But in the coming years, the all-time leading rusher out of Forsyth Central High School knows getting some snaps in his freshman year will set him up nicely for when he does swap in regularly.
“It’ll definitely just add some confidence,” Howard said. “Today, obviously, we didn’t walk away with the win, but I felt like I got a lot more comfortable than I was going into this game. If next year was my first time touching the field it would have been scary. This experience is definitely key.”
Howard is by no means the only freshman to make an impact in his first year, giving a glimpse of what might come in future seasons. Despite playing only two games before a season-ending injury, Eric Gallman shined at the wideout position, leading the team in receptions before he went down.
Archer has lauded the 130th Cornell team as an experienced group, one that will be junior-senior led, and he called the running back position, specifically, as “probably our deepest position on offense.”
If Saturday was any indication, the head coach can rest assured knowing that several positions on his team have more than capable youngster waiting in the wings.