Meet the youngest starting quarterback in college football, who throws like no one else

Chris Howell wasn’t aware that the Internet became entranced with him earlier this week. By the time he was the latest college football player to reach viral levels on social media platforms, he was already fast asleep. When he awoke on Tuesday morning, his phone was swamped with calls and messages from over 100 friends and family members. The only surprise was that the college football universe had taken notice of the 17-year-old left-handed true freshman quarterback at Long Island University.

Everyone who already knows Howell and has seen him play knows how uniquely fun his game is. Long Island turned to Howell in search of 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 those watching on ESPN when, with two defensive linemen closing in on him, he uncorked a 35-yard pass down the Long Island sideline.

The commentators were so enthralled by the throw that their voices cracked. Nobody in America throws like Chris Howell. The pass looked half sidearm sling, half underhanded spiral. If you watch the throw in slow motion, Howell drops the ball so low it is down near his left knee. When the throw was shared to a wider online audience Monday afternoon, fans of the sport were awestruck, dumbfounded and curious as to how he makes it work.

“It was funny because I’ve been hearing it my whole life, so it didn’t make me mad or anything,” Howell said this week.

There are eight true freshman quarterbacks who have started games involving an FBS team this college football season, and at 17, Howell is the youngest. He turns 18 in late October.

At a position that demands perfection on every snap, Howell has found a way to make his uncommon throwing motion work. When he was a kid, 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 he could throw spirals was to grip the ball underhanded.

“It was just a boy thing — if my brother can do it, I can do it,” said their mom, Lisa Howell. “That’s really the only way I can describe it. You know how sibling rivalries go. He didn’t want his brother to be able to do anything that he couldn’t do.”

Now 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, Howell has worked with several coaches over the years who themselves have initially been bewildered by his ability to have such a strong, accurate arm with such a low release point. As Howell said, it doesn’t feel weird to him at all when he’s dropping back and making reads. It just perplexes 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. His reaction was about the same as every football fan on the Internet earlier this week: “Oh my God, that’s 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 up the release, but Howell would always go back to his peculiar 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,” Eugene said. “I always preached to Chris to have a sense of urgency.”

Lamar McKnight found himself in a similar situation as Eugene. If it works, why force some rewiring of the brain that results in a less effective quarterback? McKnight started working with Howell in the summer of 2020 and soon realized that helping Howell throw at many different angles was a better option that making him an over-the-top thrower. As the Baylor game showed to the world, McKnight said that when Howell is throwing to his right, he tends to drop the ball lower; if he’s throwing left, it looks slightly less extreme.

“His low motion is second nature. He just throws better. Do I want to be the high-ego trainer to make this kid fit my philosophy, or do I just make this kid more confident on how he throws?” McKnight said. “Option B worked out way better. It’s not attractive, but if you see it in person, it looks better. The kid throws a pretty ball. A perfect spiral. It’s amazing.”

Just minutes prior to a high school playoff game last fall at Canarsie, LIU head coach Ron Cooper offered Howell a scholarship to play quarterback. It was a validating moment for a player who believes his unorthodox style scared off coaches. Howell also received offers from UMass and Wagner. But Cooper wanted to ensure that being different didn’t disqualify him from giving Howell a shot.

When Cooper was head coach at Alabama A&M, a high school quarterback named Philip Rivers was nearby in Athens, Ala. One of his assistants warned of Rivers’ “funny throwing motion.” That has always stuck with him.

“I’ve found out over the years that certain guys just have an awareness in the pocket 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 those seams so the ball doesn’t get batted down. Now all of a sudden there’s short QBs all over the place, and the real good ones can find those open seams. Chris is not that short, but he brings it down, but I don’t know if he’s had a pass batted down and we play against 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 the submarine-like delivery, Howell has a rocket.

“It’s one of the strongest arms I’ve ever been around,” Cooper said. “Chris needs to throw the ball a little easier, to be truthful. It’s strong. He just has a funny throwing motion. And it looks awkward because he’s left-handed.”

If you were constructing an ideal quarterback to be able to step in when summoned 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 between-the-leg windmill dunks — he was the valedictorian of his class and carried a 3.91 GPA. He’s quiet, and he doesn’t like to be too boisterous 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,” Lisa Howell said. “I said, ‘Oh my God, they’re so hard on my baby!’ But it is what it is. I’m happy for him to have his moment. I tell him, ‘Just stay focused and keep your eye on the prize. This is nothing. There’s bigger things ahead.’”

And Howell, the youngest starting quarterback in Division I, is ready to embrace it, no matter how weird you might think his throwing motion is.

“It looks weird,” he said, “but it gets where it’s supposed to be.”

(Photo courtesy of LIU Athletics)