Chris Howell didn’t know the Internet was hooked on him earlier this week. By the time he became the latest college football player to reach viral levels on social media platforms, he was fast asleep. When she woke up Tuesday morning, her phone was flooded with calls and messages from more than 100 friends and family members. The only surprise was that the college football universe noticed the 17-year-old left-handed true freshman quarterback at Long Island University.
Everyone who knows Howell and has seen him play knows how unique his game is. Long Island turned to Howell to find a spark on the road against a Power 5 opponent and made him the starter for Saturday’s 30-7 loss at Baylor. With 1:20 left in the second quarter, Howell introduced his unorthodox delivery to ESPN viewers when, with two defensive linemen closing in on him, he ripped off a 35-yard pass down the Long Island sideline.
Long Island QB Chris Howell has the most throwing moves I’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/zardDbNeRr
— Colton Denning (@Dubsco) September 18, 2023
The commentators were so enthralled by the throw that their voices cracked. Nobody in America throws like Chris Howell. The pass looks half sidearm sling, half underhanded spiral. If you watch the throw in slow motion, Howell drops the ball very low near his left knee. When the throw was shared with a wider online audience on Monday afternoon, sports fans were amazed, stunned and curious as to how he was doing it.
“It’s funny because I’ve heard it my whole life, so I’m not mad or anything,” Howell said this week.
There have been eight true freshman quarterbacks who have started games involving an FBS team this college football season, and at 17, Howell is the youngest. He will be 18 in late October.
At a position that requires perfection on every snap, Howell has found a way to make his unusual throwing motion work. When he was younger, he wanted to play with his older brother, Long Island junior defensive back Jorden Bennett, but they always used a regulation-sized football. Howell found the best way for him to throw spirals was to hold the ball underhand.
“It’s just a boy thing — if my brother can do it, I can do it,” said their mother, Lisa Howell. “That’s the only way I can describe it. You know how sibling rivalry goes. He doesn’t want his brother to do anything he can’t do.”
Now 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Howell has worked with several coaches over the years who themselves were initially baffled by his ability to have a strong, accurate arm with a low release point. As Howell says, it doesn’t feel strange to him when he goes back and reads. It only confuses those who know the intricacies of the quarterback position.
“It probably looks weird to outsiders looking in,” he said.
Bruce Eugene first saw Howell throw when he was 13 years old. His reaction was pretty much the same as every football fan on the Internet earlier this week: “Oh my God, that was a low delivery!” Eugene eventually coached Howell in 7-on-7 tournaments and became his offensive coordinator at Canarsie High in Brooklyn. Eugene, a former Grambling quarterback, tried to tweak the throwing motion, tried to shorten the release, but Howell would always go back to his unique motion and make it look better than the alternative.
“I used to call him slow-motion. Chris when he dropped back he was so cool, just nonchalant,” said Eugene. “I always preach to Chris to have a sense of urgency.”
Lamar McKnight finds himself in a similar situation as Eugene. If it works, why force some brain rewiring that results in a less effective quarterback? McKnight began working with Howell in the summer of 2020 and soon realized that helping Howell throw at many different angles was a better option that made him an over-the-top thrower. . As the Baylor game showed the world, McKnight said that when Howell throws to his right, he tends to drop the ball; if he throws to the left, it looks less extreme.
“His low motion is second nature. He’s just better at throwing. Do I want to be a high-ego trainer to get this kid to fit my philosophy, or do I just make this kid more confident in how to throw?” McKnight said. “Option B worked out better. No it’s attractive, but if you see it in person, it’s even better. The kid throws a nice ball. A perfect spiral. It’s great.”
Just minutes before a high school playoff game last fall in Canarsie, LIU head coach Ron Cooper offered Howell a scholarship to play quarterback. It was a vindicating moment for a player who believed his unorthodox style intimidated coaches. Howell also received offers from UMass and Wagner. But Cooper wanted to make sure that being different didn’t disqualify him from giving Howell a shot.
When Cooper was the head coach at Alabama A&M, a high school quarterback named Philip Rivers was near Athens, Ala. One of his assistants warned about Rivers’ “ridiculous throwing motion.” That always stuck with him.
“I’ve found over the years that some guys are just pocket conscious and they can see the open seams,” Cooper said this week. “Before I came here, I was an analyst at Alabama and was with Bryce Young. This kid can find the seams to keep the ball from getting beat. Now all of a sudden there are short QBs all over the place, and really good ones. will find open seams. Chris is not that short, but he brings it down, but I don’t know if he has a pass batted and we play with him every day in practice.
Cooper has been an assistant at Power 5 programs like LSU, Wisconsin, Notre Dame, Texas A&M and more. He knows arm strength when he sees it, and despite a submarine-like delivery, Howell has a rocket.
“It’s one of the strongest arms I’ve ever had,” Cooper said. “Chris needs to throw the ball easier, to be real. It’s strong. He just has a funny throwing motion. And it looks awkward because he’s left-handed.”
If you were making an ideal quarterback to step in when called up as a 17-year-old, Howell would be it. Beyond his physical talents — he runs a 4.5 40-yard dash and, according to coaches, can throw down a between-the-legs windmill dunk — he is valedictorian of his class and has a 3.91 GPA. He is quiet, and he doesn’t like to make too much noise about his success. Howell and his family grew up in Jamaica Queens, a neighborhood that has produced Olympic champions, musicians, actors and a host of professional athletes.
“I read all the comments,” said Lisa Howell. “I said, ‘Oh my God, they are so bad for my baby!’ But it is what it is. I’m happy for him to have his moment. I tell him, ‘Stay focused and keep your eye on the prize. It doesn’t exist. There are bigger things ahead.’”
And Howell, the youngest starting quarterback in Division I, is ready to embrace it, no matter how outlandish you think his throwing motion is.
“It looks weird,” he said, “but it’s getting where it’s supposed to be.”
(Photo courtesy of LIU Athletics)