OXFORD – For Michael Howard, heavy is hip.

It’s happening. All the cool kids – the coolest offensive linemen at least – are doing it, and with Howard, heavy has never been able to stick.

He hopes it will now.

It seems eons ago that the Ole Miss signing class included names like DaMarkus Lodge, Van Jefferson and Chad Kelly, but Howard was a part of that 2015 group with a few others who are still around.

Howard’s weight then was listed at 248 pounds. Considering he was 6-foot-6 you could see the plan. Add weight to this guy, and he’ll be a beast.

It wasn’t a bad strategy. Guys getting bigger, stronger, faster in a college strength and conditioning program happens all the time.

Howard, though, struggled to put on weight and keep it on, and it affected his playing time.

He’s appeared in 32 games mostly on special teams. Right now he’s running first team at right tackle and getting the first crack at replacing Alex Givens, another fifth-year senior, who is recovering from late July back surgery.

Ole Miss coach Matt Luke says he’s hopeful Givens will be available for the Rebels’ Aug. 31 opener at Memphis. If he isn’t, it’s likely that Howard will get the call along with three others who have never started a game.

Howard estimates that he’s put on 20-25 pounds since the spring. The Ole Miss media guide, printed while Howard was still trying to pack it on, lists him 268 pounds.

“It’s fun to be heavier, and I feel like it helps,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to compete with the big guys.”

In terms of games played Howard has an edge on fourth-year juniors Bryce Mathews, Royce Newman and Eli Johnson, also first-year starters this season.

Some of Howard’s playing time came when he was with the tight ends, a position that is often a landing zone for players who, for whatever reason, can’t stick at original positions. Right now the tight ends group includes two former quarterbacks and a former linebacker.

Weight gain has evaded Howard before, but this time it’s happened, he says, because he has simply refused to refuse food. See food, eat food.

He was also driven by the desire support his teammates.

“Just everything I saw I ate. If it was there, and it was edible, I had to eat it. It was just a mindset that I have to get bigger. I have to be there. I have to be able to back my guys up, and that’s what I did,” said Howard, who was rated a four-star prospect by ESPN coming out of Green Cove Springs, Florida.

Howard’s nimble footwork helped shape his recruiting profile. Teams like tackles that can move and play low while staying on their feet.

As a result Howard had offers from Pac-12 and Big 10 schools and other SEC schools too.

After working so hard to put on weight Howard must now navigate the tricky month of August where grueling workouts in brutal heat are more prone to subtract weight than add it.

He believes the key to retaining his recent gains is hydration.

“The weight you’re going to lose right now, most of it’s hydration,” he said. Keeping the weight on is about “staying hydrated and making sure you eat before practice and after practice.”

parrish.alford@journalinc.com

Twitter: @parrishalford

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