The interest and offers started stacking up during Mack Howard’s junior season.
Louisville and Kansas came calling early for the quarterback at Heritage Academy in Columbus, Miss. Cincinnati and Houston were in there, too. Florida State and Wisconsin were showing interest. Closer to home, Ole Miss and Mississippi State were too.
Then came a text message in mid-November from a number Howard didn’t have saved in his phone.
On the other end was Chad Bumphis, the University of Utah’s wide receivers coach. He wanted to get Howard to Salt Lake City for Utah’s Nov. 20 contest against No. 3 Oregon, a game billed as perhaps the program’s biggest regular-season contest ever.
“To hear from Utah was really cool. I was shocked to hear from them,” Howard told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview.
Howard wasn’t able to make the trip to see Utah take on Oregon. His Heritage Academy team played in the Midsouth Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) Class 5A championship game the day before. Howard threw for 334 yards and six touchdowns in a 51-21 win over Copiah Academy for his second state championship, but his first as the starter. The next day, Utah smashed Oregon to win the Pac-12 South, then did the same thing 13 days later in the Pac-12 championship game to advance to the program’s first Rose Bowl.
But a rapport had quickly developed between Howard and Bumphis, a native of Tupelo, Miss., and a former standout receiver for Mississippi State — a rapport that helped Utah go into foreign territory to land a coveted commitment from the Class of 2023 quarterback.
Recruiting foreign territory
Utah has famously recruited in the state of Florida a number of times in the past decade, but since 2000, which is how far back the 247sports database goes, the program has not concentrated much of its recruiting effort in the Deep South.
The crux of coach Kyle Whittingham’s recruiting has zeroed in on California, Utah, and Texas, followed by, in sporadic instances, Florida, Hawaii, Arizona and a slew of other case-by-case states
Bumphis, though, who grew up in Mississippi, played in the SEC, and had a cup of coffee in the NFL, has shown an ability to successfully reach back to his home region when he believes there is a player worth going after. Aside from Howard, Bumphis was the primary recruiter on highly touted freshman wide receiver Ryan Peppins (Alabama) and another three-star guy at that position in Chris Reed. Peppins is already on campus as an early enrollee, while Reed is slated to arrive this summer.
“Not every kid from that part of the country can play in the SEC, so there are going to be opportunities for coaches like Chad Bumphis to go in there, be selective, be opportunistic,” Cooper Petagna, a national recruiting analyst with 247sports, told The Tribune. “It’s definitely interesting. Utah has always done a good job relative to its competition. They understand who they are in terms of trying to identify the right fit. Whittingham and his staff are very confident in their process.
“Cole Bishop was a kid from back east (Peachtree City, Ga.) who was committed to Duke. Utah went in there, identified him as someone they wanted, and they flipped him. Mack Howard was not committed, but the situation there is not all that different from Bishop.”
Where things do differ is that Howard plays the highest-profile, most-important position on the field. When the No. 1 recruiting target at quarterback commits to a program, especially this early, Petagna went as far as to call Howard a “foundational piece” of this Utah class.
Howard cannot sign his national letter of intent until Dec. 21, so a number of things will happen, or may happen, between now and then.
For starters, Howard automatically becomes a recruiting pitch given the mere fact he is on board. As a point of reference, Utah’s 2021 class featured an April commitment from four-star quarterback Peter Costelli. With the Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School star as the pitchman, he helped yield a top-35 class nationally.
“It is beneficial if you have the right personality out front exuding confidence, bringing people together, recruiting for Utah,” Petagna said. “I think that is important, but it all depends on the person, if you have the right guy at quarterback. Howard is on board and it’s a positive. Utah should deploy him, get him on the phone with other recruits.”
Landing their QB
While the relationship between Howard and Bumphis flourished, other Utah coaches got involved. On Jan. 26, three weeks after the Utes lost an epic Rose Bowl against Ohio State, Utes offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was in Mississippi to watch Howard throw.
Once Howard was done with his workout, Ludwig offered him a scholarship on the spot.
On March 25, Howard and his family were in Salt Lake City for a visit, but with no intention of committing. After all, it is still early in the recruiting process and Howard is four-plus months from starting his senior year at Oxford High School, which he transferred to late last month.
Between meeting Kyle Whittingham, touring the football facilities, sitting in on a quarterbacks meeting, and having the opportunity to briefly pick Cam Rising’s brain, Howard and his family were so taken with the experience, he committed to Utah before the day was done.
“They kept coming after me hard,” said Howard, a three-star recruit and the No. 23 quarterback in the class of 2023 according to the 247sports composite. “We got to go out there to check it out, and we loved the place. There is no need to wait if I know this is where I want to be.”
Howard’s commitment made its way to Twitter on March 26, and it was a big deal in local circles, as would any quarterback committing, but especially as early as Howard did. In the time since the commitment, intrigue has been high, as it would be with any quarterback committing, but Howard brings a specific brand of intrigue.
Now Howard says he wants to use that to help bring more talent to Salt Lake City.
“I’m definitely going to help recruit guys, help build one of the best classes in the country, and Utah has all of the capabilities to do that,” he said. “Once guys see Utah, objectively, me being from Mississippi, you get there and it really is ‘Wow, why not come here?’ You have a chance to play for championships, it’s one of the coolest spots in the country, and the staff is great.
“Why not Utah?”
It is important to remember, though, that verbal commitments are nonbinding and, given the nature of college football recruiting, it stands to reason that other schools will continue to woo Howard. The quarterback has given no indication he is open to such things. But this wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last time, Utah would have to fight to get to the proverbial finish line with a recruit before he is able to sign a national letter of intent.
“He’ll go through the spring, the offseason camp circuit, he’ll get more exposure in the process, and it’s just an example that you don’t really stop being recruited,” Petagna said. “That’s a negative for Utah if there’s a school within 300 miles, within five or six hours with the ability to get Howard on campus. Utah will obviously keep the lines of communication open, and while I wouldn’t be surprised if he received more interest, I think the early commitment to Utah says something about how both sides feel about the fit.”
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