Jordan Howden and Terell Smith stuck with the Gophers, now ready for the NFL draft

Gophers safety Jordan Howden had a baptism of fire during his freshman season in the fall of 2018 — and then nearly froze that winter.

Howden was thrust into a starting role with Antoine Winfield Jr.’s season-ending foot injury, and the punter struggled to adjust to Big Ten football. After the season, the San Diego native recalled freezing minus-40 degree conditions on his way to and from a night course.

“It was something you don’t forget,” Howden said with a smile as his senior season ended in November.

Howden didn’t let those bites bite him. He made huge strides on the field last season to become a leader on the U’s stout defense and braved relentless snow and cold to be a consistent Big Ten academic honoree.

“I was just on a mission,” Howden said. “Someone willing to do whatever it took and that’s why I look back and say, ‘Dang, how far we’ve come.’ Something that a lot of people can’t do.”

So did cornerback Terrell Smith. The Snellville, Ga., native showed aplomb in his true freshman season, but injuries and inconsistent play disrupted the middle half of his career before he bounced back in a big way last season. He, too, was a regular on Big Ten academic lists.

Both Gophers players — “J-How” and “T-Time” — are expected to hear their names called in the middle rounds of the NFL draft this weekend. They are testaments to perseverance in an era of looking for quick fixes or looking for greener grass on the NCAA transfer portal.

The Gophers have had three defensive backs drafted in the past three years: Winfield (first round in 2020), Chris Williamson (seventh in 2020) and Benjamin St-Juste (third in 2021).

Fellow U defensive back Tyler Nubin is projected to be an NFL draft pick next year, but he will live vicariously through Howden and Smith this weekend.

“There’s going to be tears of joy because I’ve been able to see those guys since I first got here (in 2019) and we were all kind of nothing and going through the grind,” Nubin said last week. “These are my brothers. Seeing them ready will be awesome. I really can’t wait.”

Smith was plagued by muscle injuries in his mid-career, but set out to correct that. For the past two seasons, he has arrived at the Larson Football Performance Center long before his teammates show up for practice. He stretched himself and asked strength and conditioning coach Dan Nichol to stretch him some more. He argued that mobility work every day.

“That started to rub off on me and the other guys in the group,” cornerback Justin Walley said. “… Then we see how that translates into the field. Now, all cornerbacks wake up in the morning, stretching, straightening our bodies.”

Smith and Howden had to get their minds right and were able to share with NFL personnel how they overcame adversity in college to be better prepared for the next step.

Howden has a message for other attendees.

“Never give up, keep working because you never know what could happen,” he said. “Opportunities come, you just have to take the opportunity and go with it. Just believe in yourself.”

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