For Howell, it has been a rapid ascension filled with huge sacrifices and thousands of hours of hard work and time away from his family, which now includes four children: Dakota, Kayla, Autumn and Zion.
"It is on my mind every day," he said. "I am grateful that I am here. I count my blessings every day. I am thankful for the opportunity coach [Bronco] Mendenhall has given me. It is just awesome to be at a place like this."
Because he dreamed of being a college football coach since he was a child, Howell gave up his coaching and teaching job at Ben Lomond, took his wife, the former Brooke PoVey, and young family to Provo and took an unpaid internship at BYU in 2007. In 2008, Mendenhall made him a defensive graduate assistant, a job that pays, but not much.
"Obviously, as a G.A., you don't make hardly anything, but we were OK," he said. "It was good. We just drew upon our savings and had a few things bounce the right way. We would scrap until the end of the month, and then go on to the next one. That's how it worked."
Mendenhall said that Howell's "sincere hunger and desire and work ethic to be here was overpowering," even as an intern, and so he promoted the youthful-looking Howell to graduate assistant.
"As a graduate assistant, he was outworking and working circles around everyone else in our office," Mendenhall said.
The head coach said former Cougar Micah Alba was similar as a graduate assistant, and trained Howell.
Then Howell trained now-linebackers coach Kelly Poppinga, and Poppinga trained Shaun Nua, now on the staff at Navy.
"We just had a really nice cycle of great young coaches coming through, and Nick has a lot to do with how we are doing," Mendenhall said. "… He's the first one here every day and when you leave, he is still going strong. So that's just the energy and passion for the game [he has], and thirst for knowledge."
Howell didn't play football for Weber State, so there's no extra meaning in Saturday's game for him or his family, he said. But seeing the Wildcats across the field will bring back memories of where his journey began.
"He's passionate, and he really cares about the players, and he really cares about the program," said BYU defensive back Preston Hadley. "You can just tell by the intensity that he coaches with, he loves what he does, and it wasn't easy for him to get where he's at."
Climbing the ladder
Howell's rapid ascension:
2005-06 • Head coach, Ben Lomond High
2007 • BYU defensive intern
2008-09 • BYU defensive graduate assistant
2010 • BYU outside linebackers coach
2011-present • BYU secondary and special teams coach