Minnesota’s top football recruit has Gophers, all top programs after him
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, Jaxon Howard has played tight end, defensive end, long snapper and has even cameoed at quarterback for Class 5A school Robbinsdale Cooper.
ST. PAUL -- While a dozen Minnesota Gophers football players in this year’s NFL draft class were put under the spotlight (and microscope) during Minnesota’s Pro Day in mid-March, a few off-to-the-side conversations were at least tangentially related to a prospect with potential to star at this event in, say, 2026 or ’27.
Inside the university’s indoor practice facility on March 16, Robbinsdale Cooper High School head coach Willie Howard chatted with Minnesota assistant coach Kenni Burns and then caught up with former Gophers player and current New York Giant linebacker Carter Coughlin.
Howard was there to watch his former quarterback at Cooper, outgoing Gophers cornerback Phillip Howard. They share no biological relation. Willie Howard’s son, Jaxon Howard, was out of sight taking an International Baccalaureate test that day, but was certainly not out of mind.
Jaxon Howard is a four-star prospect considered by recruiting services to be the No. 1 prospect in the state of Minnesota for the 2023 collegiate recruiting class. With a score of 0.9641 from 247sports, Howard would be the second-highest-rated recruit to sign with Minnesota, behind Minneapolis Washburn running back Jeff Jones (0.9712) and just ahead of Eden Prairie product Coughlin (0.9566).
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, Howard has played tight end, defensive end, long snapper and has even cameoed at quarterback for the Class 5A school.
“He’s physically gifted,” said Clint Cosgrove, a new recruiting analyst for rivals.com after a career as a scout at National Preps and as a former college coach, including at Minnesota. “He comes from great lineage. Hard worker. Smart kid. You don’t get a ton of those players. Every few years you get one of those guys in Minnesota; he’s definitely that guy. He’s one of the better players they have had come out of there in a while.”
Willie Howard, now 44, grew up near San Jose, Calif., attended Stanford and was all-Pac 12 before the 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive lineman was drafted by the Vikings in the second round of the 2001 draft. An injury cut short his NFL career after two seasons; he then went into coaching under Mike Tice and stuck with the profession.
Willie had been leading the program at Cooper for eight years when a freshman, Jaxon Howard, a former water/ball boy, started to play varsity. Former Gophers linebacker Tommy Becker was a Hawks assistant during the start of that training camp and only knew Jaxon’s first name.
“This kid,” Becker said, “has instincts and a football IQ,” Willie recalled.
“I have to be honest,” Willie responded. “He is my son.”
“Oh, makes sense,” Becker replied.
Willie called that assessment from Becker “validation.” Once Becker moved on, former Vikings linebacker Ed McDaniel joined the staff and gave a similar scouting report. “When you start hearing all-pros say that, then it really triggers,” Willie said.
Jaxon started to form relationships with college coaches his freshman year, and with dad leading the travels, the sophomore made unofficial visits across the country.
On his 17th birthday last September, the junior whittled more than 55 offers down to his top 12 schools: Notre Dame, Minnesota, Florida, Michigan, Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio State, Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Oregon, Sanford and Arizona State.
Then the coaching carousel started to spin, and Jaxon felt some motion sickness with all the changes — not only to the five new head coaches at schools on his list but also a domino effect with countless assistants. That included his top two recruiters at Minnesota: defensive line coach Chad Wilt, who took a promotion to be Indiana’s defensive coordinator, and tight ends coach Clay Patterson, who went to Colorado to be tight ends coach/passing game coordinator.
“That put me off a little bit because some of the schools in my top list, I was mainly focused on the coach and not really the school and the culture,” Jaxon said. “My dad sat me down and talked to me. I didn’t really realize how the coaching game really was. It’s not always the coach’s fault when things happen, but you have to be aware of the coach and his coaching style because in a matter of days he could be gone. When it comes to it, you have to find out if you love a number of things.”
Jaxon, an A student and two-time team captain, has put academics high on his list of criteria, along with a modern living environment, relationship with coaches, fit in a program’s culture and its facilities. And he keeps an eye on not being sucked into “all the bells and whistles.”
Jaxon will visit the Gophers this weekend for Junior Day, where he will further get to know Burns and new defensive line coach Brick Haley, who arrived this offseason from Missouri.
“Just hang around with the coaching staff and … some recruits,” Jaxon said. “I want to go learn. I want to go talk some ball, particularly when these coaches have some time.”
The Howards plan to be back for the Gophers spring game on April 30. But they also will head to a handful of other spring games and make up to five official visits in June. The plan is to commit to a program before his senior season begins this fall.
“If I get one thing,” Willie said, “and it’s what I’ve told him, (do it this summer) so he can enjoy his senior year and not have the headache.”
Jaxon said he plans to speak to Coughlin in the near future. Coughlin, who had deep, generational family connections to Minnesota, stayed home over other options, primarily Ohio State and Oregon.
“Looking at his story, he had offers from multiple places and the best thing about him is he … found the school that completely fit him,” Jaxon said. “We can see the numbers. Minnesota fit him perfectly, and it made him an even better player. Look at where he is now: He’s in the NFL.
“For me, I’ve got to find that certain place, whether it’s the University of Minnesota — or it might not be. I’ve got to find what fits me perfectly.”
As far as his collegiate position, some schools want him as only a tight end or defensive line. Some are recruiting him at both positions. Willie says if he keeps bulking up, the decision will probably be made for him: D-line.
But the question all Gophers fans really want to know: Is Minnesota a legitimate option? “Yes, sir,” Jaxon replied.
Willie said they have visited the Gophers quite a few times on Jaxon’s desire. “Yes, they are in our backyard, but he has wanted to go see them often. If — again, ‘if’ is the word — if we are not going to go to the Gophers, coming from a parent standpoint, something is going to have to really just say, ‘Hey, it’s everything.’ ”