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Like Steve Wilks, A.J. Howard An App State Man

Rookie safety fighting to be second Mountaineer with Cardinals

Rookie safety A.J. Howard directs defensive traffic during a minicamp practice in June.
Rookie safety A.J. Howard directs defensive traffic during a minicamp practice in June.

A.J. Howard is a defensive back from Appalachian State. His head coach was also once a defensive back from Appalachian State.

Perhaps, it is suggested, that gives Howard – an undrafted rookie safety – some small benefit. He smiles at the idea.

"I don't have any advantage, no," Howard said. "But just being in drills, you hear, 'C'mon App State!' things like that. It makes you want to go harder and put on for your school, just like coach Wilks is doing from the coaching part of it."

Certainly, Wilks is aware. "A.J. of course, being an Appalachian State grad, it's very important to me," Wilks joked. But there are reasons Howard, over the course of OTAs and minicamp, earned his way up the depth chart with reps with both the first and second units in certain packages. None have to do with his college.

The funny thing is, Howard's connection with the Cardinals – and Wilks – could've actually been stronger.

Howard's defensive backs coach in college was Scot Sloan, who recently took the defensive coordinator job at Georgia Southern. Before that, Sloan's years at Appalachian State were marked in part with a relationship with Wilks himself.

When Wilks was an assistant with the Carolina Panthers, he invited the App State staff – including Sloan – to watch OTAs or practice if they wanted.

"He basically opened the door for us," Sloan said.

Sloan got so much out of it he stayed in touch with Wilks – "Steve is highly respected back at App," Sloan said – and took frequent trips to visit the Panthers and learn what he could from the staff, including Wilks and current Cardinals defensive coordinator Al Holcomb.

When it came to Howard, however, Sloan never talked to the Cardinals pre-draft.

"When they signed him, I shot Steve a text and told him, 'Hell of a decision,' " Sloan said.

Sloan is effusive in his praise of Howard, painting a picture of a player with a high football IQ who loves video study, who embraces special teams play and whose work habits "are off the charts."

There is also a possibility the Wilks-Sloan-App State connection has helped Howard in the NFL. Sloan and Howard recently spoke, and Howard told him there was some carryover from the concepts in college to the NFL, thanks to Sloan and the Appalachian State coaches learning what they had from Wilks when Wilks was with the Panthers.

Wilks praised Howard's intelligence and his ability to communicate. The next step, Wilks said, is to see Howard in pads and his ability to tackle on the NFL level. But Howard has shown his early worth, with or without his Appalachian State connections.

"When you're a rookie, you find ways to be encouraged. It's inevitable," Howard said. "But it's definitely encouraging to get some reps with the 'ones', especially an undrafted guy. It's fun to get out there and be with the guys and learn."

And sometimes hear some encouragement from his fellow Mountaineer.

Images of the safeties on the Cardinals' 90-man roster