While he switched to linebacker in the spring of 2020 in hopes of getting on the field, he moved back to running back early in the season. Before the switch, he hadn’t played linebacker since before his freshman season in high school. He called the experience “definitely different” and “definitely fun” and said that playing linebacker helped him develop as a football player.
“I’d say playing linebacker even helped me become a better running back,” he said. “I know what they’re thinking and how some teams’ linebackers try to fit the gaps and everything. It helped me use my hands better. It made me more physical, I’d say. Like, it helped me with special teams a lot, being able to attack somebody on kickoff and rip ‘em off and then rip through them.”
When he switched, he first worked at running back with the scout team while still practicing at linebacker before eventually making the switch full-time. Though he didn’t play much at running back behind Jahmyr Gibbs, Jordan Mason, Jamious Griffin and Dontae Smith, he was happy to be back, even on scout team.
“I was trying to embarrass (the defense) every play,” he said. “Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
Particularly as a sophomore in 2018, Howard showed his ability at running back, starting seven games and rushing for 564 yards and five touchdowns on 107 carries. As a junior, with Mason taking over the No. 1 job, his production dipped to 102 yards on 23 carries, although he became a significant special-teams contributor and blocked two punts.
As a senior, he had three carries for 17 yards and four tackles, three made on special teams. Howard said he made up his mind to transfer before what proved to be the last game of the season, the Dec. 10 loss to Pitt. It ended a four-year Yellow Jackets career with, among other things, one bowl game, a coaching change and nine starts.
“It’s definitely been different than a lot of people,” he said, “with the coaching change, from playing a lot going to mainly third-down back and receiving back to special teams. But overall, my career at Tech’s been great. With these coaches coming in, even though I didn’t play as much as I did before, I’ve learned so much and became an even better running back.”
He called his past two seasons “great” and expressed particular gratitude for running-backs coach Tashard Choice.
“I’ve just been soaking up the game from coach Choice,” Howard said. “Everything that he said, I’ve written down and did 100 times to where it becomes muscle memory. I’m just thankful for him because I know for a fact that I can go out and coach somebody and make them a better running back right now if I wanted to.”
Howard said that Choice was passionate, knew him well and pushed him to be great, not allowing him to slide on even small mistakes.
“He’s a great person,” Howard said. “And he loves God. That’s what made him so great. Not just even the coaching part, but he’s going to make you a better man and a God-fearing man before he teaches you about football.”
He said he doesn’t have a favorite game, but does particularly remember the 2018 win at Virginia Tech, when the Jackets thrashed the Hokies 49-28 by rushing for 465 yards, including 215 by then-quarterback Tobias Oliver. Howard contributed 76 rushing yards and a touchdown.
“You couldn’t hear anything,” Howard said of the Lane Stadium environment at the start of the game. “You couldn’t even hear yourself think at first. And then I’d say, after the first quarter, it was like crickets.”
He also expressed his trust in coach Geoff Collins.
Said Howard, “He’s a smart coach. He definitely cares about his players, and I’ve got faith in him that he’s going to win.”
He had a fond memory of the leadership retreat that Collins led in May 2019 in which players, coaches and staff shared intensely personal parts of their lives with one another.
“That was really impactful. That showed me that he really cared because he didn’t have to do that,” Howard said.
Former coach Paul Johnson, Howard said, was a “good, smart coach” who was more reserved.
“He was more like, I’m going to tell these guys what to do, and then we’re just going to go out and execute it.”
Howard was particularly impressed with Johnson’s knowledge of his offense.
“Just that he could remember all these plays and come up with new plays on the fly like that was amazing to me,” he said.
Howard has lived a life different than most of his teammates. His sister Ja’Quasha Martin died in January 2015 in a car accident at the age of 22. His father Jerry Howard Sr. died in December 2016, the victim of a shooting. Having gone through such trials caused him to grow up quickly, he said, but he has realized in the last couple years that he can do more for others by encouraging, supporting and sharing his own experiences.
In September 2018, Howard became a father to Braxton, with girlfriend Zariah Hampton. Having a son has changed his perspective.
“I used to put myself first a lot, and I would say as soon as he was born, I was like, OK, let me pay this money to him. Let me put this up,” Howard said. “I would say he definitely helps me really put others first before myself.”
It’s an outlook he can take into his next chapter, wherever that may be.
Georgia Tech running back Jerry Howard and his son Braxton, who was born in September 2018. (Photo courtesy Jerry Howard)