BIRMINGHAM — The suggestion came from Tyrique Howard's father. Spend a couple of years in the Army after high school graduation and gain some needed discipline, his father said.

How did that work out for the younger Howard?

"I didn't think it was (my life path), but I needed the discipline that the Army gave me," said Howard, now a UAB defensive tackle. "I don't discredit it. I really thank God that I had to go through the Army. It made me who I am today. It wasn't a career choice for me. My dad was like, 'Son, you just listen. You're going to thank me later on.' To this day, I'm still thanking him. It made me a man."

Howard laughed when asked if the thanks started while he was in boot camp.

"I wasn't thanking him in boot camp," Howard said. "I was mad every day in boot camp, man. You had to shave your head. You're eating MREs. I was sick."

Howard's military obligation lasted for two years.

"You get to see everything disappear, everything go away," Howard said. "The Army makes you appreciate everything. You appreciate Kool-Aid because you don't have nothing but water. You do whatever they want you to do every day. Seeing the opportunity (to attend college and play football) go away, thinking it would never come back. When I did get the opportunity, I took advantage of it. I'm thankful for it every day."

Howard went to Itawamba Community College in his home state of Mississippi after leaving the Army. He made an impact as a starter and two-time all-conference player in his two junior college seasons. He didn't arrive at UAB until late in the summer before last season. And he brought some extra weight with him.

"When I got here, I was bringing 380, 390 [pounds], somewhere in there," said the 6-foot-6 Howard.

He went to work on changing that.

"Sleeping was one thing I didn't do great before I got here," Howard said. "I didn't know sleep did what it did. Usually, the average person thinks you have to starve yourself. No, you have to eat in portions and work it off. I know Coach Lyle (Henley) did a great job teaching us the health side of things. Every day was a constant grind, so when you see those results, long term, it feels good."

What made it even tougher was that Howard was also trying to earn a spot in the rotation at the same time. He didn't have the luxury of off-season training after arriving once fall camp had opened. He was in the rotation from the beginning of the season and finished with 18 tackles.

"When you just get thrown in real fast, it's very uncomfortable," Howard said. "You have to relearn everything. I didn't have a spring with UAB, so I wasn't comfortable at all. After the season went on, we got into tougher games, and my opportunity came. I didn't take advantage of all of them, but the ones I did take advantage of, I grew confident in myself. It was also like, people like Fish (McWilliams), the stars on this team, are down to earth. That makes you more comfortable too. Everybody wants to be better."

Watch Howard during spring practice, and it's night and day from last year's fall camp. He said his weight is down to 330 pounds and is noticeably quicker and stronger. Throughout the early part of the camp, he's generally lined up on the first-team defense alongside McWilliams and Michael Fairbanks on the defensive interior. The Blazers also have strong depth and competition there, with Drew Tuazama, Kevin Penn and Joker Gill among the group of experienced linemen.

UAB head coach Trent Dilfer has lofty expectations for Howard.

"We think 'Rigue can be a dominant player, not just a good player," Dilfer said. "We're trying to get his brain wrapped around what it looks like to be dominant for an entire football game. He's embracing that process. He's getting in better shape. He's moving great. He had an awesome off-season program. His endurance got up, his strength, his quickness. He's really growing as a leader, too. He's become one of the core leaders on the team."  

For Howard, that comes with a dose of his past.

"My mama, she's got this saying," Howard said. "I used to work at Wal-Mart. I'll vent to her. She'll say, 'Well, son, you can always go back to unloading them trucks. There's many people unloading them trucks. Or you can do this.' When you look at it that way, it makes you more grateful for everything that's going on."

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