WHO: No. 3 Clemson (4-0, 2-0 ACC) at Syracuse (2-2, 0-0)
WHEN: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: Carrier Dome, Syracuse
TV: WCIV (ABC)
LINE: Clemson by 12.5
CLEMSON — One of Clemson junior running back D.J. Howard’s two “I’m back” moments Saturday was his 75-yard touchdown on a swing pass from Tajh Boyd — a play made for SportsCenter.
The other one was hardly noticeable.
With 11 minutes, 28 seconds remaining in No. 3 Clemson’s 56-7 blowout of Wake Forest, Howard’s seventh and final carry of the afternoon was just as significant to his return to health as the long touchdown.
Lining up in the pistol, second-string quarterback Cole Stoudt handed off to Howard, who veered to his right on a stretch play. With some room to operate at the line of scrimmage, Howard saw Wake Forest linebacker Britt Cherry blocked to the ground in front of him by Tigers receiver T.J. Green.
Howard hurdled Cherry, lifting off and landing securely, and picked up a 6-yard gain to conclude his day with 34 rushing yards for a total of 120.
From the sideline, fellow tailback Zac Brooks watched with glee.
“When I saw D.J. jump over a guy, he blew my mind right there,” Brooks said. “Because I’ve never seen D.J. jump, because of his ankle injury. He jumped, and I was like, ‘Wow.’ He definitely surprised me.”
That’s because Brooks, a sophomore, hadn’t ever seen that version of D.J. Howard in person. That’s the old D.J. Howard the Tigers wish would stay awhile.
“D.J. had his best game in well over two years,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “We just can’t wait two more years to have another game like that.”
Howard broke out the third game of his freshman season with 86 yards on just nine carries in a 38-24 victory at Memorial Stadium over defending national champion Auburn.
Since then? Plenty of impatience, frustration and self-doubt amid a slew of injuries.
Howard didn’t exceed 25 yards the rest of 2011. He only carried 35 times for 138 yards his entire sophomore year, plagued by a shoulder injury in mid-September and later a nagging sprained ankle.
He wondered if he’d had enough. During this past offseason, Howard harbored a secret from his teammates: he was thinking of giving up football.
“It’s very discouraging being hurt; you still want to make plays, but your body is limiting you,” Howard said. “You start getting down on yourself, you start sulking, you start doubting yourself.”
Howard didn’t share his agony with teammates, because “excuses don’t get you anywhere in life.” Lots of looks in the mirror, reassuring himself not to feel self-torture for his mistakes and injuries, allowed him to gradually release his grief.
“Once I was able to understand that everything’s not going to be perfect, then I became a better me as a person,” Howard said. “That was part of the growing up I had to do; refocusing and getting back to my old ways, which is working hard.”
Finally, Howard thought of his three greatest influences: his mother, his Lincoln (Ala.) high school principal Terry Roller and his late high school coach Keith Howard.
Keith Howard, no relation to D.J., died of a heart attack suffered on the sideline during Lincoln’s season-opening victory in 2009, D.J. Howard’s senior year of high school.
“I didn’t work this hard for so long, to get where I wanted, to get to give up so easy and give up on those who helped me so much to get here,” Howard said. “You have to push through the tough times, you know?”
The adversity lingered into fall camp, when Howard’s junior year at Clemson greeted him with a left ankle injury. Howard confidently said, “it is OK now, it is good” as he looks to battle his way back into the running back rotation.
“Every run is very important, because everybody wants to hit the big home run,” Howard said. “But you’ve got to get little (singles) every now and then. The smaller runs equal up to the big runs.”
Starter Roderick McDowell is questionable for Saturday’s game at Syracuse with his own ankle injury, which will yield more practice reps to Howard, Brooks and walk-on C.J. Davidson.
Morris noticed Howard’s hands when Boyd put the pass on his back hip and forced Howard to spin around to make the grab before turning upfield.
Howard followed effective blocks from receivers Sammy Watkins and Adam Humphries before cutting past Wake Forest safety Ryan Janvion to produce the longest gain and fifth touchdown of his career.
“He needs to put some consistency together,” Morris said. “That’s our challenge to him.”