CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – First, about that name.
He was born Johnathan Jamaul Howard and raised in a little-bitty Rochelle down in South Georgia, Wilcox County. But he has been known as “Bug,” well, as long as he can remember.
“It came from my Grandma,” said Bug Howard, the son of Lonnie and Veronica Howard. “She said I used to bug her a lot. It used to be, ‘Bugger,’ but it got shortened down to Bug. That’s how I got that name.”
As a 6-foot-5, 220-pound wide receiver for North Carolina, Howard looks like anything but a bug these. In fact, wearing the No. 84 jersey for the Tar Heels, he looks a lot like Randy Moss, his longtime idol. And he plays like him, too.
Howard has been one of UNC’s most productive receivers over the last three seasons, and that’s saying something in the pass-happy spread offense that coach Larry Fedora has utilized to great effect in the ACC these last few years.
Heading into his senior season, Howard has caught 93 career passes for 1,221 yards and 10 touchdowns. That Howard had 29 catches for 488 yards and 4 touchdowns last season — and it was considered a “down year” — says something about the expectations there were for him.
Howard was considered a candidate to bolt early for the NFL heading into the season. Thanks to that lukewarm, injury-hindered season, the Tar Heels have him back for another run.
This is particularly good news for first-year starting quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The fact is, Trubisky and the Tar Heels have a bunch of receiving targets. Including fellow senior receiver Ryan Switzer, who is already ninth on UNC career lists for catches with 148, Howard is one of three wideouts in the fold who had 29 or more catches this past season.
Georgia would love to boast such production and experience. In fact, Howard represents yet another one of the Wilcox County kids onto whom the Bulldogs couldn’t get a firm hold. Georgia fans might have heard of two his cousins — Nick Marshall and Lonnie Outlaw. They both signed with UGA, Marshall starting out in Athens but finishing at Auburn and Outlaw signing but never getting started.
Likewise, Howard was recruited by the Bulldogs, albeit too little too late.
Here’s a little more from Howard, who is eager to face off against his home state’s university when the two teams meet Sept. 3 at the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game:
Q: About your unique first name, is it something you’ve always liked?
Howard: “I stay in a small town. Having that name in a small town, everybody’d hear my Grandmama call me Bug, so my friends would call me Bug. Then it just caught on. Then, when college coaches started coming to recruit me, they’d come to the school and ask for Johnathan. (School officials would) say, ‘Who’s Johnathan?’ They’d figure it out and say, ‘Oh, you’re talking about ‘Bug.’ So I carried that to college.’”
Q: Did you get much of a look from Georgia in recruiting?
Howard: “I did have Georgia on my list, but they came on the scene really late. North Carolina was on me pretty early in my recruitment. Coach Fedora used to be at Southern Mississippi and he recruited me there and we built a connection from there. So when he moved over to North Carolina, that was the first man who saw me in high school, the first person to notice me. So I felt loyal to him.”
Q: Does your Georgia connection provide any extra motivation for you playing the state university in the season opener in Atlanta?
Howard: “Most definitely. Going back home, playing in front of those guys, I’m definitely looking forward to it. I had a cousin who used to go to Georgia, Nick Marshall. He went on to Auburn and now he’s with the Jags.”
Q: Yes, I’ve heard of him. I guess you’re also related to Lonnie Outlaw, then, another former UGA signee. He’s tall like you, 6-6, I think.
Howard: “Yeah, it’s a big family tree.”
Do you stay in touch with Nick?
Howard: “Oh, yeah, we talk pretty often. We talk every other week at least. I talk to him a lot just to get an idea of what the NFL is like. So we talk on the regular.”
What’s your thoughts on the Georgia matchup?
Howard: “Right now, you don’t know what to expect. You’ve got Kirby Smart coming in and different stuff. It’s going to be interesting to see because you can’t really go off what you saw last year because Kirby’s coming in and is going to change it all. He’s a defensive mastermind. We’re just going to watch some old Alabama film and see if he does some of the same things.”
Q: The narrative on Tobacco Road was you had a bit of a down year as a junior. Do you agree with that assessment?
Howard: “It wasn’t quite what I wanted, but I got a chance to make it better this year. So I’m looking forward to being better this year, working on my craft, catching, running routes.”
Q: How do you expect the transition from quarterback Marquise Williams to Mitch Trubisky to affect the offense?
Howard: “For me I feel like it’s a good transition. Coming in with Mitch, me and Mitch have had this connection ever since we came in. Having him at quarterback and building on it is going to be something fun to watch. I feel like that’s going to be great.”
Q: Do you feel the offense will be much different under Trubisky?
Howard: “I feel like it’s going to be the same as last year, very explosive, very fast. We lost a couple of guys, Marquise and (offensive lineman) Landon (Turner) and (receiver) Quinshad (Davis). Everybody coming back should have game experience, though, so it should be pretty good. We might be more explosive. Everybody knows the system so we should be able to play faster. We know what we’ve got and it’s going to be fun.”
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