Trent Howland tries to do it both ways.
The burly Indiana running back is well aware of his size, at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds. He was big enough to temporarily fill a need for linebacker depth last season. His strength and power can be a real weapon in the backfield.
He hasn’t always weaponized those attributes to their full potential, thinking of his style more akin to a smaller player. But Howland is coming around on that, and is earning an increased role in the IU offense.
“I know I’m big and I know I can run through people and run power,” Howland said. “But I also try to take different aspects of my game, especially getting into open field, and when I do have breakaway runs, when it comes to the 1-on-1, I do want to feel like I can use a lot of finesse moves instead of just running through people all the time. But either works.”
The redshirt sophomore has played in five games for IU this season, but has really seen his opportunities increase the last two weeks. His action against Ohio State, Indiana State, and Maryland came at the end of the games when the result was already settled.
But Howland saw more snaps against Michigan, and earlier in the game, with some success. He rushed for 35 yards on five carries in Ann Arbor, and that led to additional chances in the Rutgers game. And he was IU’s best running back on Saturday, with a team-high 54 yards on nine rushes and two receptions for 20 yards.
Howland started to use his size to his advantage more, and the results have been positive.
“Trent, to me, is a guy that’s just really challenged about using his size and running with that kind of authority. Even though he’s a big guy, he’s always viewed himself a little bit more of a finesse-type runner. That is not who you need to be. He’s got great ball skills. He’s a really good athlete,” said IU head coach Tom Allen. “Big, physical guy that just needs to take that ball and get downhill, and he’s doing that now. You can see the benefits of that for him and for us, so excited for him and his development and the way he’s responded.”
Howland stood out — both for his size and his strong play — during fall camp. IU’s running back room is crowded, though. Jaylin Lucas has been a focal point in Indiana’s offense all season. Josh Henderson was one of Indiana’s most productive players last year. And Christian Turner transferred in with a lot of college football experience.
But Henderson hasn’t played in the last four games, and Turner was banged up in the Michigan game. That gave Howland a chance. And he’s capitalized on it.
“Trent, certainly, starting the week before at Michigan, showed us enough to get more reps, and then showed us enough here to get even more reps going forward,” offensive coordinator Rod Carey said. “I think that that started in practice, his entire practice this fall camp and everything, and then certainly got his opportunities, and when you get your opportunities in games and you execute the way he has been, that deserves more. So that’s going to continue to go up.”
This has been a long time coming for Howland. The COVID-19 pandemic cost him his senior season in high school, and he suffered a knee injury playing basketball that year which lingered into his arrival in Bloomington. He redshirted in 2021, and then appeared in nine games last season on a limited basis.
So it’s been nearly four years since Howland had played as full of a game as he did on Saturday. And that set in for him on Sunday.
“It obviously felt good the past two weeks,” Howland said. “But I was thinking to myself last night, I was like, ‘Wow, it’s been a while since I actually played a real football game like that.’ So it felt good. It was a lot of stress on me. But the opportunities are coming. So I’m proud of myself for that.”
Henderson is getting closer to returning, which would make it even tougher for Carey and IU’s offensive staff to find enough reps for all four running backs.
Carey said Monday that none of the players have clearly established themselves as the lead, workhorse back, which means their roles aren’t necessarily defined already. He described the situation as if it’s an open competition for reps, saying he’s hoping someone takes things up a notch in practice to stake their claim.
Howland has the least experience of these players, but he’s not unknown inside the program. Running backs coach Craig Johnson said in mid-September — after the Louisville game — that he was looking forward to seeing Howland get his opportunity.
“The bottom line is, I think there’s a place for him, and when he has played, I would say last year he played a little bit, and he’s played this year, but when he plays, he produces,” Johnson said in September. “You want to put a player in the position where they can do the best things that they do well that helps blend in with your offense. I’ll say this for Trent: when the time comes, he’s been a very multi-talented player, and he’s got a good skill set.”
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