Then there were two: Redshirt seniors forge friendship through adversity

WKU offensive lineman Miles Pate looks on during the game against UAB on September 28, 2019 at Houchens-Smith Stadium. WKU won 20-13.

Alec Jessie

In the summer of 2015, then-WKU head football coach Jeff Brohm was set to welcome his newest recruiting class to the Hill. The Hilltoppers added players from across the country expected to be future contributors to their offensive and defensive lines.

WKU signed six offensive linemen as part of its 2015 recruiting class, including a three-star prospect from Nashville named Parker Howell and a two-star prospect from Lawrenceville, Georgia, named Miles Pate.

Although just five seasons have passed since then, the turnover since the first of WKU’s back-to-back Conference USA Championship squads has been enormous.

Fast forward four years, and WKU has been guided by three different head coaches — Brohm, Mike Sanford and Tyson Helton — and a different offensive line coach every season — Neil Callaway, Dale Williams, Geoff Dartt, TJ Woods and Mike Goff.

At the same time, countless players have come and gone from Bowling Green. But while others passed through, Howell and Pate matriculated and became redshirt senior leaders for WKU.

The duo’s journey to their fifth season together on the Hill has been far from easy, but it all started with some friendly trash talk about high school football when the two were bright-eyed freshmen just getting their footing at WKU.

On Aug. 22, 2015, defending Tennessee Class 3A state champion Christ Presbyterian Academy — Howell’s alma mater — traveled to Georgia Class 6A program Peachtree Ridge — Pate’s alma mater — and notched a season-opening 35-21 road victory in Suwanee, Georgia.

Pate said the game’s result helped the two newcomers start building their friendship.

“[Howell’s] high school team played my high school team at my house, and somehow they got the win,” Pate said. “He’s still giving me crap for that. I would say that’s how we really got acquainted, and it’s been like that ever since.”

Howell said he and Pate have been living together for three years now, which has helped the duo forge a “great relationship.” When asked how it’s been living with Pate for the last three years, Howell started to chuckle before Pate interjected and told his roommate, ‘Be honest,’ prompting even more laughter from Howell before he collected himself to respond.

“He’s my best friend over here,” Howell said. “We get along awesome, we have a good time. We actually are very similar in what we like to do. If one of us is getting out of line, it’s easy for the other one to just be like, ‘Hey, man, get it together.’ It’s been easier than I actually anticipated.”

A redshirt senior season at WKU almost didn’t happen for Pate.

The Peach State native felt he wasn’t ready for college and said he was prepared to leave. The “family-oriented” teenager got homesick.

“My freshman year first coming in, I was ready to get out of here,” Pate said.

Although that first season was far from a breeze for Pate, a tough mentality helped him fight through the early struggles. Pate said his mindset allowed him to power through.

“At first I didn’t know what to expect going into college, but it was definitely a change,” Pate said. “I just had a mindset to where this is the only scholarship I had, and if I go anywhere else it’s not guaranteed.”

Howell and Pate decided to stick with the program, collecting reps in practice and absorbing knowledge from their coaches and peers. Even while sitting out for a year to extend their collegiate eligibility, the two worked on developing themselves on and off the field.

“I felt like being redshirted was the best thing that happened to me coming here,” Pate said. “Because I would say when I first got here I didn’t know right from left or anything like that, so I feel like that redshirt year helped me mentally, physically in the weight room and just all around.”

Following the 2015 season, Howell and Pate’s position coach was hired by Southern California — the first of many coaching changes the duo has dealt with during their time with the team.

Pate said playing for a new position coach each season wasn’t an experience he expected to have during his college career. Howell agreed, revealing it’s been a tough adjustment. But each change has shown the duo consistency is hard to come by when it comes to college football.

“That’s the business of the game, and that’s the reality that hit our class early,” Howell said. “Having a different O-line coach every year, that’s hard, but being able to adjust — it actually teaches you more about football. You get to learn different coaching styles, how different coaches operate, and it’s actually helped us in the long run. But it has been a journey.”

While Pate has seen increased snaps and more starts at his right tackle spot since 2016, Howell’s role on the WKU offensive line has been quite different over the years.

The Volunteer State native has played all over up front, sometimes as a starting left tackle and currently as a key reserve in the trenches for the Hilltoppers.

“I’ve had the whole array,” Howell said. “Just kind of been ready for whatever’s thrown at me. As I was told, life’s a journey, so you got to make the best of where you’re at. It’s just being able to come in every day no matter what they tell you to do, no matter what you have to do.”

Helton — WKU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 2015 — said he saw talent in Howell and Pate even when they were “young pups” just breaking in as practice players.

But the first-year head coach said he’s seen “a night-and-day difference” in Howell and Pate since he’s been back on the Hill.

“They’ve done a great job,” Helton said. “Miles is the anchor for that group. He’s doing a really good job. The thing I like about Parker is he can do a lot of things — play tackle, tight end, guard. He’s always positive, he’s willing to do whatever. They’re vocal. They keep the guys going.”

Howell said he and Pate do “whatever there is to do in Bowling Green,” but their favorite bonding activity is watching film and getting better together in the WKU football facility.

The duo looks at opposing defenses and critiques each other’s play as grainy images roll by on the screen in front of them. Howell and Pate bounce their ideas off each other, sometimes pausing to recall lessons taught to them by their former teammates on the Hilltopper offensive line such as All-Conference USA performer Brandon Ray and NFL Draft pick Forrest Lamp.

Goff, the duo’s current offensive line coach, said Howell and Pate are “two guys that have been around the block,” but they’re not complacent.

A 12-year NFL veteran and 2005 All-Pro in his own right, Goff said Howell and Pate are flexible, willing to learn and striving to better themselves — traits he hopes to build on during his time with them so they can be utilized for “whatever the future holds in the years to come.”

“It shows that they’re committed to this program and they’re committed to their brothers in the offensive line room and to this university,” Goff said about the duo sticking at WKU. “I think in a day where people, if they don’t get their way or if things don’t go the way they want to, they look to just leave instead of work and figure it out, they stayed.”

As their careers come to a close on the Hill, Howell has mixed emotions toward his eventual departure from the program. On one hand, he loves WKU and everything he’s learned, but the mechanical engineering graduate and MBA student said he’s also ready for life after football.

“It’s bittersweet,” Howell said. “I love this place, and it’s so fun to play this game of football with these guys, the locker room, everything that football entails, but I’m also excited for what life has ahead.”

Pate said he hasn’t thought too much about the 2019 season being his last, because he’s so focused on his week-to-week preparation.

His days on the gridiron are also unlikely to end soon, as national college football writer Bruce Feldman listed Pate No. 40 on his 2019 “Freaks List” and touted him as an NFL prospect similar to current Patriots lineman Joe Thuney.

But as the midpoint of his senior year approaches, Pate reflected on being one of the last two offensive linemen left from WKU’s 2015 class.

“People didn’t pan out or just left,” Pate said. “The fact that me and Parker stayed here just shows that we stayed the course, and it’s good having my guy with me.”

Howell said he and Pate built a special bond throughout their collegiate careers, one that’ll keep them “best friends off the field” long after they hang up their chrome WKU helmets.

“We came in with six guys at offensive line, and now we’re down to two,” Howell said. “That just shows how tough it is … Going through together has brought us closer, and we’ve just been able to pull ourselves through everything together.”

Pate called the journey to a redshirt senior season alongside his best friend a testament to their perseverance, later noting the experience has made Howell his brother for life.

“He’s my boy — I mean, I don’t want to give him too much,” Pate said before joking again at Howell’s expense. “But nah. That’s my guy ‘till the end.”

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Alec on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.