West Brom's Kyle Howkins is on the right track, says Mansfield boss Steve Evans
He's got the technique and the physique to become a successful Premier League defender, but Kyle Howkins still has a lot of hard work ahead of him.
That doesn't mean Mansfield Town boss Steve Evans hasn't been impressed with the Albion 20-year-old during his loan spell in League Two.
He reckons the giant centre-half has every chance of succeeding at the Baggies, but there's a big difference between the top tier and the fourth.
"He's been excellent in all honesty," said Evans, and Howkins would have played more than 17 times had he not picked up a couple of injuries this season. "He's a big lad, strong, competitive, and has got a fantastic attitude.
"He's technically good as well, he's at the top end of the technical ability for League Two. He's got a lot to do to become a Premier League player but he's on the right track."
And the coaching staff at Albion agree. Tony Pulis took Howkins on his pre-season tour to Austria last summer, and last month he was handed a new two-and-a-half-year contract, keeping him a Baggies player until the summer of 2019.
He may be a few years older than the likes of Jonathan Leko, Sam Field, and Kane Wilson, all of whom have made first-team appearances this season, but Albion are willing to be patient with Howkins, because experience is key in his position.
"If you're a wider player or a striker it's easier because it's a physical game that then becomes a technical game, but as a defender or as a goalkeeper what you need more than anything else is experience," said Evans.
"You can't beat experience at first-team level, Kyle needs to play in some important games for us, when the pressure is on.
"What League Two does is, is it brings you the physical challenges that you need to progress.
"This season he has continued to develop with ourselves. He'll get the opportunity over the summer to impress Tony in pre-season before he probably goes out on loan again.
"I think perhaps his next move should be a League One club or a struggling one in the Championship, so he can bridge that gap up to Tony in the Premier League and compete in his squad. Then, the ultimate man to decide if he's good enough is Tony Pulis."
Unfortunately for Howkins, injury has plagued him this season. When Evans became Mansfield boss in November, the Albion defender was sidelined with a knee injury.
The Glaswegian put him back into the team on Boxing Day, and he helped Town – who are currently seven games unbeaten in the league – turn around their fortunes.
But last month he injured his knee again in a Checkatrade Trophy match with Oldham. It's been a frustrating return to the treatment table for Howkins, who spent time on loan at Kidderminster Harriers last season, but he could be back in action this weekend against Hartlepool United.
"He's had plenty of knock-backs this season but he's coped really well," said Evans. "He's a big strong boy.
"He's got one thing in his favour, there's nobody in the Premier League who produces defenders quite like Tony.
"Ultimately, if he produces the type of performances that get him noticed than he's got a master to learn under at West Brom.
"Whenever he comes back (from Albion) you feel he's learned a bit more. He's a proper whole-hearted defender but he's reading the situation in League Two.
"As you step up the levels up through League One, Championship and into the Premier League, you have to read those situations a whole lot quicker.
"Jonny Evans is a master at it. When you wonder why central defenders have got five or six yards of space in the Premier League, it's because they've read the game well. It's not about pace, Kyle isn't the quickest, but he reads the game."
Evans is confident Howkins has the right attitude to succeed under Pulis, but he's seen plenty of potential Premier League stars fail to make the grade, and warned the defender to keep pushing himself.
"He's only just beginning to develop," added the former Leeds boss. "I think he's got a real chance, but I've been in the Championship myself and seen youngsters who you think have a chance of making it. And out of four or five, perhaps one of them does.
"Very few grab that opportunity to play in the Premier League, he's got a lot of hard work to do first."