At Michigan, Howard runs into Heisman spotlight


Desmond Howard has been called "Magic" for several years, a carry-over from his days as a basketball player at a recreation center in Cleveland. Now the University of Michigan flanker and kick returner is being called something else: the early-season favorite for the Heisman Trophy.

A combination of Howard's incredible start, along with the recent free-fall of Houston quarterback and preseason favorite David Klingler, has sent the 5-foot-10, 176-pound junior hurtling into the spotlight.

In fact, a different kind of stat has been derived at through Howard's brilliance: number of touchdowns in relation to the number of times touching the ball. Going into Saturday's game between third-ranked Michigan (2-0) and No. 1 Florida State (3-0) in Ann Arbor, Mich., Howard is a spectacular six of 18.

"I've been around Desmond Howard for a long time, and he just amazes me," said Michigan quarterback Elvis Grbac, who has played with Howard since they were seniors at St. Joseph High School. "He comes up with some plays I've never seen before."

Considering his sudden rise on a long list of Heisman wannabes, Howard obviously made some very big plays for the Wolverines this year. Among his four touchdowns against Boston College was a 93-yard kickoff return.

But it was the two touchdowns he scored in a 24-14 win two weeks ago over Notre Dame that put Howard, as he said recently, "on the minds of every defensive coordinator we play." One was a dazzling 29-yard reverse, the other a dramatic diving catch in the end zone on a 25-yard pass from Grbac.

That catch, or "The Catch" as it is being called around the Michigan campus, came on fourth-and-one with a little more than nine minutes to go and helped the Wolverines quash an Irish comeback. Among Heismanphiles, it has been likened to the "Hail Flutie" pass of seven years ago.

"I didn't realize the impact of that catch until I got home and watched it on TV," said Howard.

Suddenly, he was being compared to former Notre Dame star Raghib "Rocket" Ismail and being called the most electrifying player in college football. Suddenly, he was the man defenses were gearing up to stop.

Despite some fairly impressive stats last season -- his 63 catches and 1,025 yards were second in the Michigan record books to Jack Clancy's 76 catches for 1,079 yards in 1966 -- there was no indication that Howard would get off to the kind of start he has this season.

Or that Howard would ever be this kind of player.

"We felt Des was going to be a good player, but nothing to this magnitude," said second-year Michigan coach Gary Moeller, who, as an assistant under Bo Schembechler, recruited Howard. "He still has to prove he can do it over the long haul."

Though Moeller has opened things up with with a no-huddle and more balanced offense, this is still Michigan. The offense revolves around a massive line and tailback Ricky Powers. But getting the ball in Howard's hands has become a priority.

Unlike Ismail, Howard considers himself more of a receiver than an all-purpose player. And while Ismail spent much of his time publicly dismissing any talk of the Heisman during his last two years in South Bend, Howard isn't backing away from the possibility. He is soft-spoken, but supremely confident.

"One of my goals is to be the best college football player in the country," he said. "To have my name mentioned for the Heisman means that I must be aspiring to one of my goals."

But realizing it will be difficult. Consider that only two flankers have won the award in the past 20 years -- Tim Brown of Notre Dame in 1987 and Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska in 1972. Consider how wide-open the race has become since Klingler and reigning winner Ty Detmer have struggled.

And consider who Howard will face this week. Florida State's Terrell Buckley was a second-team All-American as a junior last season. He had six interceptions for the Seminoles in 1990, returning two for touchdowns, and has one interception this year.

"It pumps up any player when you see the player you're going against on the cover of Sports Illustrated or some other national publication," said Buckley, who also returns punts.

Howard won't have trouble getting ready for this week's game. Another national television audience will be tuned in, and another sellout crowd of more than 101,000 will be watching at Michigan Stadium, not to mention a few Heisman voters.

"You have to walk it like you talk it," said Howard. "Whether you're in the weight room doing some lifts, or on the field, I definitely respect guys who show themselves by their actions rather than by their words."

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