When defensive line coach Greg Colby met Jake Howe this year at the University of Illinois, Howe was just No. 95 – a big guy nursing a broken wrist suffered against Tennessee in the fall.
Colby didn’t think much of it until he saw the ailing player chug through practices, pushing himself and his encased arm past unthinkable pain in workouts and drills.
“The biggest thing I’ve figured out over the last four to five months is how physically tough he is,” Colby said. “It’s something that a lot of people wouldn’t have been able to do. He has a great work ethic.”
Seeing Howe play provided Colby with a clear decision in regard to this fall’s depth chart.
“It didn’t take long to figure out he’s our starting nose tackle,” Colby said. “There’s no doubt he’s No. 1 going into the fall.”
On Feb. 12, Colby, who has coached the Illini in the past as both a baseball and football assistant, was chosen to direct the Illini’s defensive line after coaching at Division II Millersville in Pennsylvania.
That’s how he got to meet Howe, a McHenry East graduate and a junior at Illinois.
That work ethic Colby saw in Howe was apparent long before his days at Illinois. Howe, who graduated in 2010, was named McHenry’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in addition to earning Northwest Herald All-area nods his junior and senior years. His drive led to a scholarship at Illinois, where he joined the team as a tailback but quickly moved to defensive tackle.
“It was difficult at first,” Howe said. “Using my hands was the biggest challenge.”
Howe joined Illinois in 2010 weighing 240 pounds, and he redshirted that year to beef up and study his new position. Through a rigorous training schedule and diet, the 6-foot-3 lineman swelled to a current 305 pounds, Howe said. His performance on the field also inflated, thanks to a combination of intuitive coaches.
“Coach [Keith] Gilmore, my previous defensive line coach, really set the base for me,” Howe said. “Coach Colby has only added on to that.”
Howe built upon his base from a redshirt year with a special teams-focused freshman year in 2011, when Howe played in 11 games and collected a pair of solo tackles. Last season, Howe played in five games as backup to former Illini tackle Akeem Spence, who was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the fourth round of April’s NFL draft. That was before Howe’s season was gobbled up by the injury. The wrist injury meant hard work would have to prevail.
“It was difficult with having weakness there,” Howe said. “I had to prepare myself for it before practice.”
Since then, Howe has recovered from his injury and is comfortable with his wrist. The preparation will show this fall, moreover, with his ability level increasing “about 300 percent,” he said.
Since moving on from McHenry, Howe has learned more than just football – as goes the story with any other gleaming kid striding onto a campus, diploma in hand. He says he has become more responsible, more dedicated, since he first donned blue and orange. He also has assimilated himself with his now-familiar football brethren.
“He’s a guy who seems to get along really well with all of the teammates,” Colby said. “He’s one of those players that make coaching a pleasure.”
With a promising starting spot ahead of him and his injury behind him, Howe is looking forward to the future and looking back at the past – the one he has built upon to stand where he does today.
“I love the experience,” he said. “It’s been great.”