August 26, 2009
Jasper Howard is a talker. He talks to his mom in Florida twice a day. He talks to the wide receivers in drills, oh, twice a minute.
He'll jump up from a set of post-practice push-ups to talk about the tattoos across his midsection dedicated to his younger sisters. And if it's Dwayne Difton on the other side of the football? Howard will do his best to tattoo him before showering his "little brother" with trash talk.
When the words run toward his family, he is sweet and sensitive. When they run toward UConn two-a-days, "Jazz" Howard is unashamedly competitive.
"No. 1, I feel I am a leader," the junior cornerback said Tuesday. "No. 2, I like to talk trash because I know other guys will compete even harder with me because they don't want to get played in front of everybody. Once I start talking, once I start getting in their chest, they want to get right back at me. It ain't nothing but competing."
One of the enduring sights of 2009 preseason workouts is No. 6 jumping up and down, high-fiving, exhorting teammates. If he's not leaning into Malik Generett, he's getting stiff-armed to the ground by Difton only to drill the hotshot freshman after he stepped out of bounds.
"Every time I go with D-Dif, it's all out," Howard said. "I want to make sure I beat him down every time, because he comes hard. We both have that mentality in everything we do. We're trying to make each other better every day.
"I call him my little brother. He calls me big brother. I've taken him under my wing the way Darius Butler did with me. We're all from the same area [South Florida]."
On this day, Howard's reveling in a practice dedicated to the two-minute drill. Passes are flying everywhere. He's a magnet to the ball.
"I love the two-minute," he said.
You get the feeling he loves the other 58 minutes, too. He got his nose snipped by Randy Edsall in the spring after he dived into the end zone after an interception. That display of showboating got him thrown out of practice, a lesson that there is a line between exuberance and hubris.
"I got excited about making a play and did something stupid," Howard said. "You won't see it happen again."
Howard isn't a captain. He only seems that way. He is assertive. He is engaged. He is non-stop. This is not the nervous freshman fumbling away a punt at West Virginia. Remember the team-high four interceptions last year? The Big East-leading 11.8 yards per punt return, including the 69-yard TD at Syracuse? The fumbled punt in the International Bowl? Or the un-fielded punts that twice pinned UConn inside the 5 at Rutgers? This isn't even the sophomore who tight-roped through those highs and lows. Howard looks different. He understands nutrition and conditioning. He's only 5-9, but he's stronger physically and surer mentally. The little guy is poised for a very big autumn.
"He has tremendous ability," Edsall said. "He has tremendous confidence now."
"I've been a punt returner since I was 7 in Pop Warner. I won't give it up for nothing. I plan on being the Big East leader again this year."
"A new offensive coordinator, new offense, everybody wants to know what's going on. I understand. But the defense is still the same. We're NASTY."
"I hope they throw my way. Whether they do or don't, I'll find a way to get the ball somehow."
Primarily a receiver at Miami Edison, Howard said he was only a part-time defender in high school. He was a neophyte at coverage. A seminal game, Edsall said, was last year against Louisville. The Cardinals tried to go after him with 6-9 Josh Chichester. Howard played bigger than his height. Ground was stood.
"I have learned everything about playing cornerback from Darius and Coach [Scott] Lakatos," Howard said. "I didn't know anything when I got here."
In many ways, Howard's story is about maturation beyond football. He is simultaneously a leader and a learner. He is mentoring Difton as Butler mentored him. Yet, as recently as this spring, Howard was held out of a practice, because he was skipping study hall.
"I am back on track," Howard said. "Coach and I are on good terms on and off the field now. I'm not getting back in that boat anymore."
"I had to try to get Jazz to understand how important academics are," Edsall said. "Coming from the culture he came from, this culture has been a change for him. When he first came here, he didn't trust a lot of people. We've had to gain his trust, and it's had to be hard at times on him to get him to understand that we don't want him just to be a football player. We want him to be a total person. I think he really understands that now. He understands that when we get on him it's not because we don't love him or like him."
Howard did not have an easy time growing up in Miami. His mom, Joangila, worked multiple jobs, made sacrifices to support Jazz, Keyondra and Jasmine, afflicted lifelong with meningitis. He is the first from his family to attend college.
"My mom was my mom and dad," Howard said. "My father was never around. I call her every day and before I go to sleep every night. And I'm very close to my sisters.
"When Jasmine was younger, the meningitis of her brain was real bad. She's just a little set back now. She's 13, but mom says it's like she's 11 or 12. She's going to be OK. Keyondra loves sports. She runs track. She starts at point guard in basketball. She made all-county. We're really hoping she follows me to the next level."
Just as he hopes to learn enough to follow Butler's footsteps to the NFL.
There is a time to lead and a time to learn. And right now, for Jazz Howard, the time is for both.
Inside: Offensive tackle Jimmy Bennett (above) out for season. Page B3
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