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Trying times are paying off for West Virginia's Skyler Howard

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As West Virginia headed into its first Big 12 game of the 2014 season, the name sitting No. 2 on the depth chart at quarterback was a surprise to many.

When true freshman William Crest entered conference play as the backup to Clint Trickett, the automatic assumption was Crest had positioned himself as the Mountaineers’ quarterback of the future ahead of incoming junior college transfer Skyler Howard.

That wasn’t the case.

"By no means was that an indication of who I thought was going to be the next quarterback after Clint," WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said. "It was just a decision we made that I felt would benefit both of them."

In fact it was a part of a bigger plan, aimed at getting the most out of Howard and Crest. Crest needed to jump-start his development and Howard needed to relax and focus on making a smoother transition into Big 12 football. Thus, Howard was pushed further down the depth chart and Crest was awarded more practice reps running the offense.

The decision has paid off as Howard enters the summer as the Mountaineers’ top quarterback with Crest set to fill multiple roles in the offense this fall. The time off helped shape Howard into a quarterback who is much more prepared to run Holgorsen’s attack in 2015.

"He was going through a period when he was trying so hard it just felt like he needed to take a break," Holgorsen said. "Crest needed reps and I liked his athleticism, so we went with him as the No. 2 guy early in the year. So he [Howard] sat back and watched for about a month. I think that helped him quite a bit."

Crest went down with a shoulder injury just a few weeks into the season, pushing Howard into the backup role. When Trickett was knocked out of WVU's November matchup with Kansas State, Holgorsen turned to Howard.

"I looked at Skyler and said 'Are you ready to go?' and he said, 'Let’s do this,'" Holgorsen said.

Howard completed 15 of 23 for 198 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions in his first significant action as a Mountaineer, but Wildcats receiver Tyler Lockett was simply too much for WVU, finishing with 321 all-purpose yards in a 26-20 KSU win.

"He went in there and was calm and he really did what he needed to do in order for us to win the game," Holgorsen said of Howard.

That performance made it clear Howard wasn’t going to be a bystander in the competition to start in 2015. The sophomore went on to start WVU’s final two games, finishing 56 of 110 for 829 yards with eight touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also had 22 carries for 140 yards.

"It really did him well," Holgorsen said of the final stretch of 2014. "He took advantage of the bowl reps and didn’t play great against Texas A&M, but he learned a valuable lesson as far as what he needed to do to be a great quarterback."

This spring Howard was a different quarterback, running away with the competition to replace Trickett, prompting Holgorsen to experiment with Crest at other positions. Howard is taking clear steps toward becoming a quarterback Holgorsen can count on. When asked to detail what he likes about Howard, Holgorsen had a lengthy list.

"He’s just a good football player, it means a lot to him," Holgorsen said. "There are a lot of things he does well. He’s a fierce competitor, he’s athletic, he’s smart, he has a quick release, he has good feet, he’s accurate, he’s a winner. He took over a junior college team that was losing and won 11 games with them. He’s got good leadership skills and continues to get better."

Yet Howard likely wouldn’t be where he is without the up-and-down journey that represents his 2014 season. He’s gone from a fourth-string quarterback who seemed lost early in the season to the Mountaineers’ clear cut No. 1 quarterback in a matter of months.

"You can tell the familiarity is where it needs to be in order for him to take over a team as a starting quarterback," Holgorsen said.