Specialists propelling 3-1 Gators|[9/27/05]

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Count Willis McGowan as one Vicksburg Gator who’s glad potent punter/kicker John Howard is on his team.

McGowan knows the value of a good punter since he’s on the receiving end as the Gators’ primary punt returner. But together, Howard and McGowan have made the 3-1 Gators’ special teams really special this fall.

“He’s a tough punter because the ball is too high. He kicks it so high, it’s hard to get a runback off him,” said McGowan of Howard’s prodigious hang-times.

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Howard had the best game of his career Friday at Southaven, booming four kickoffs into the end zone, making a 35-yard field goal, two PAT kicks and dropping three punts inside Southaven’s 10-yard line.

McGowan had a great game himself, returning a Charger punt 47 yards for key a third-quarter touchdown. He later sealed the 30-6 romp with a 92-yard interception return for a touchdown.

While McGowan came into this season as one of the Gators’ top Division I-prospects, Howard has been a revelation.

“He’s proven to be a great weapon for us,” VHS coach Alonzo Stevens said. “He can get our offense out of a hole and put the opposing team in a hole.

“As our kickoff guy, he’s already put one kickoff into the band.”

It wasn’t quite like that last year. As a junior, Howard did not get on the field until midway through the season, handling kickoffs only.

“We knew John was a great soccer player, but he had to make an adjustment, learning how to kick a football. As a place-kicker, he had our offensive linemen ducking for cover,” Stevens said. “We’d line up to kick, and John would hit it five yards right in the left tackle’s butt. Then he’d hit the right tackle in the butt. Then it’d be the center.”

Howard says that’s an exaggeration.

“That only happened once in a while,” said Howard, who actually played five years of football when he was younger. “I played from the third grade until my eighth-grade year. I pretty much stayed with soccer until the (football) coaches approached me my 10th-grade year. I worked on it and by halfway through last season, I was doing the kickoffs.”

During the winter, Howard was a starting forward on the Gators’ Class 5A runner-up boys soccer team. He finished second on the team in goals scored with eight.

Now he’s scoring points on the field. The 35-yard field goal was his first career make. He’s 7-of-8 on PAT kicks to give him 10 points on the season.

“The kid has worked hard. And it’s unusual to see one kid do all three well, but he’s mastered punting, kickoffs and the place-kicking is coming on,” Stevens said.

Hitting the ball firm, is the key.

“You just have to make sure you hit the ball accurately and you do that by hitting it in the right spot,” Howard said.

Kickoffs are easy but punting is a challenge, especially if the other team applies a heavy rush.

“Natchez had a pretty good rush, but if I have a good snap, I can get it off,” Howard said. “What I like about punting is trying to get the ball as close to the other team’s end zone or putting us as far away from our end zone as possible.”

McGowan has similiar objectives. As a defensive back he wants to keep teams out of the end zone, while as a punt returner, the end zone is the ultimate goal. He found it at Southaven – twice.

“I got a line drive punt and was able to take it on the run,” McGowan said. “I was looking to take it to the sideline but I saw the defense shift that way. I was able to cut back, pick up my blockers and just kept going straight up the middle.”

In the secondary, McGowan got his second pick six of the season with a near field-length return.

“They (Southaven) had gone trips to one side and my guy was the running back. But they didn’t look at the running back and I was really looking at the tight end who was on a seam route. I broke in front of him and then went 100 yards the other way. My other TD was a 55-yarder against Natchez,” said McGowan, who has three interceptions on the year.

The Gators will open Region 2-5A play on Friday night at home against Provine.