Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
Travis Howard said he thinks he’s playing the best football of his life this season.
The “best of the best,” actually. And maybe he’s right.
The redshirt senior cornerback has already made three interceptions just two games – and two wins – into Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer’s first season in Columbus.
Howard is tied for the most interceptions by a single player in college football, and certainly the most of any Buckeye.
Success, though, has come and gone for the Miami, Fla., native during his time at OSU.
After arriving at OSU in 2008, Howard’s play, he said, hadn’t been what he hoped.
Until Meyer arrived in Columbus, at least.
“When Urban Meyer came in, he brought his staff in, everybody kind of welcomed me in right and got after me and didn’t let me slack off,” he said.
Before the Buckeyes’ season opener against Miami (Ohio), Howard had four picks in as many years, two of which came in 2010 under former coach Jim Tressel, a year in which Howard saw limited action as a backup to former Buckeye cornerbacks Devon Torrence and Chimdi Chekwa.
Then a redshirt sophomore, Howard flashed moments of brilliance, particularly when he picked off Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin for a late touchdown in a Nov. 13, 2010, game in Ohio Stadium, a contest the Buckeyes won 38-14.
But after OSU’s program was rocked by scandal and Tressel’s resignation in May 2011, Howard said his concentration – and subsequently his performance – slipped.
“I can say last year I wasn’t too focused,” Howard said. “There was a lot of things going on in the past.”
Such distraction was evident on and off the field.
Howard started 2011 by making headlines in all the wrong ways. He missed the first two games of the season for taking “impermissible benefits” at a charity event. OSU senior running back Jordan Hall and fellow cornerback Corey Brown also received two-game suspensions for receiving impermissible benefits at the same charity event.
Statistically, Howard had trouble recovering. He managed 41 tackles and two interceptions over the course of the next 11 games. It wasn’t clear if the former Rivals four-star recruit would ever live up to the player some hoped he’d be.
Under Meyer’s guidance, though, Howard said his outlook changed during OSU’s spring practices.
“I mean, I kinda,” Howard said before trailing off. “I kinda realized and noticed the things I was doing last year and how my attitude was last year.”
Howard said he felt more focused, more tuned in and finally started to live up to his potential.
“I knew I was able to do the things that I wanted to do, but I just didn’t have that person to push me,” he said. “The coaching staff that came in, they really pushed me and made me compete for a lot of things, especially at my position.”
Once pegged as someone who was supposed to be “the guy” for the Buckeyes’ defensive backfield, Howard started to find himself in the shadow of the hype surrounding teammate redshirt sophomore cornerback Bradley Roby.
In fact, in April, it was uncertain if the redshirt senior would retain his starting job to sophomore cornerback Doran Grant.
While it never came to that, Howard said he wanted to send a message.
“It was a long year last year and coming to this year, I had a lot of expectations from my coaches, so they kinda pushed me a lot and prepared me well,” he said. “I just wanted to go out there and just show everybody what I’m capable of doing and how well I’ve been preparing for these first games.”
And judging by Howard’s first two games, it seemed apparent he’d laid the groundwork to do exactly that.
It even caught Meyer’s eye.
“Travis – really got a lot of respect for him,” the former Florida coach said, “but he was not a great player here last year, did not play great. He’s got great abilities. So a kid with great ability that doesn’t play great, there’s a problem.”
Meyer said something was out of alignment, something was out of place.
Howard’s evolution was apparent to the hard-to-please Meyer.
“I can see it happening right now,” he said. “That kid’s turning into a very good player.”
For Howard, vindication from Meyer has finally started to sink in.
“It means a lot. I mean, last year was just a tough season for me and I just wanted to come out here this year and just leave it all on the line for everybody,” Howard said.
It’s because they’d do the same for him, he said.
“This coaching staff, I mean, they work so hard preparing us for every game day in and day out and I just appreciate everything they do,” Howard said. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes and listen to those guys because they know what they’re doing.”
Like Meyer, co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Everett Withers said Howard’s newfound attention to detail has been instrumental in his rebirth on the field.
“He’s a talented young man and I think what was happening is this is his last go-around as a Buckeye and I think he wants to make sure he goes out the right way,” he said.
Withers called Howard a student of the game, but it might have not always been that way.
“You see a lot of maturity just from what I go from hearing from coaches previous – you know, Coach (Luke) Fickell, Coach (Mike) Vrabel from last year – that he’s grown up and matured a lot, so I think that’s part of the production that you’re seeing is just the growth in him,” Withers said.
Though proud of his teammate, it’s even made Roby lightheartedly envious.
“He keeps getting picks and I’m really not,” Roby said playfully. “It’s a little bit of jealousy because of course I want to be the best corner not only on the team but in the country.”
Roby said he knows Howard’s time in Columbus is running out.
“It’s definitely a competition but I’m OK with that. I want Travis to do as best as he possibly can, it’s his last year,” Roby said. “I have a little bit more time here so I want him to ball out and do what he has to do.”
It’s why Howard is starting to think about his legacy at OSU and why it’ll be in the back of his mind as the Buckeyes prepare for their third game under Meyer against California this Saturday at noon.
“Recently, I just thought about it. Any time you go out there and play I feel like you gotta have something to motivate you and when you think of your legacy is on the line, it allows you to perform well and it allows you to go out there and give it your all,” he said.
“Most definitely it’s a thought in your head because you never wanna go out there and leave a bad reputation for yourself.”
It could’ve bee
n that way, though had Howard not righted the ship. And with exactly 10 games remaining in his career, Howard’s equally, if not more concerned with how his team will be remembered.
“I just want to win,” he said. “I mean, I want them to remember us as a team that came out on top, so that’s the thing that I try to strive for.”