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UNC Football: Sam Howell Breakdown

A look at the talented signal caller UNC was able to flip on National Signing Day.

NCAA Football: Western Carolina at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

The Mack Brown era 2.0 got off to a hot start with the recruits he was able to sign during the Early National Signing Period. There are a lot of really good players coming to Chapel Hill next season that Tar Heel fans should be excited about. The biggest name of the class so far is consensus four star-quarterback Sam Howell, out of Sun Valley High School in Monroe, North Carolina.

Howell, a pro style quarterback, is the second-rated overall player in the State of North Carolina and the third-rated quarterback in the country. He committed to Florida State on April 9th of this year, during his junior year of high school. He stayed committed to Willie Taggart and the Seminoles up until December 19th when he signed with the Tar Heels.

Now that the dust has settled from the Early Signing Period, here’s a look at what the good folks in Chapel Hill can expect to see out of Sam Howell.

2019 Quarterback Class

Bud Elliott, one of the lead recruiting writers at SB Nation, wrote back in the summer about how the 2019 QB class doesn’t have any five-star quarterbacks. The one five-star quarterback, JT Daniels out of California power house Mater Dei, reclassified and just finished his Freshman Senior at Southern California. While the class as a whole isn’t as strong as some other previous quarterback classes, that doesn’t take away from just how talented Howell actually is.

The thing that pops out on film when watching Howell is how mobile he is. At Sun Valley they ran a lot of designed quarterback runs for Howell, which makes sense because the dude was 6’1” 225 lbs. in high school and has a thicker beard than Luke Maye. Howell’s designed runs were normally read option based or quarterback draws.

Howell ran for over 1,200 yards his senior year and averaged over ten rushing attempts per game. At the Opening Finals in July, Howell was clocked at 4.99 running the forty yard dash, so we’re not exactly dealing with the reincarnation of Lamar Jackson here. In high school Howell was simply a much bigger, more talented athlete than everyone else on the field.

At Carolina Howell will be involved in the run game still, but it’d be hard to see him getting ten rushing attempts a game. What will carry over from high school to college is his mobility within the pocket. Howell’s pocket presence style is somewhat of a mix between Baker Mayfield and Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral when they were both in high school. (This should go without saying, but I’m not predicting Howell will actually be Baker Mayfield.)

When Howell feels pressure he sometimes has a tendency to tuck it and run, which is the biggest difference I think we’ll see from high school to whenever he sees the field at Kenan Memorial. What Mayfield and Corral do well is when they break the pocket they keep their eyes downfield and run the scramble drill with his receivers. Howell flashed that ability at Sun Valley High, and as he continues to develop his down field awareness he’s going to be dangerous.

Also quick note: part of the reason that Matt Corral committed to Ole Miss coming out of Long Beach Poly in Southern California was because of offensive coordinator Phil Longo who is now on Mack Brown’s staff. It’s not a coincidence that those are the two quarterbacks who committed to play for Longo in the last two years. Howell is built bigger, and their playing styles aren’t identical. However, they shared some common traits coming out of high school that Phil Longo will be able to take advantage of with Howell.

The best thing about Howell’s game is his accuracy in the quick-hitting passing game. Whether it be a run pass option where he’s reading a linebacker, or a three step drop on the goal line, he has a really good understanding of the big picture of the play.

In quick passing situations Howell usually has one read, most commonly a linebacker but can be the safety, and based on the defender’s “read steps” Howell decisively gets the ball to the open receiver. His offense in high school involved a lot of slant routes from both the outside and the slot receiver, so even if the linebacker vacates or the safety covering the slot is playing too high it’s still an extremely tight window that Howell has to get the ball into. When Howell gets to Chapel Hill he’ll see similar offensive concepts, with even tighter windows to fit the ball into on those quick in-breaking routes where’s he’s reading one or two defenders. Once Howell figures out the speed of the college game he should be able to see on field success early in his career.

When the play breaks down and he keeps his eyes downfield it’s pretty remarkable what he can do. In the video of Howell’s highlights he makes some remarkable off-platform throws. Off-platform throws refer to when the quarterback doesn’t make a throw in his normal drop back sequence. That’s where the Baker Mayfield and Matt Corral comparisons come into play. It is (essentially) impossible for defensive backs to cover receivers for more than four to five seconds. In situations where Howell breaks the pressure and escapes the pocket and has enough time to settle into a throw he still has the whole field available to him, where on a designed roll-out the field becomes cut in half. Asking a defensive back to cover a route and then defend the entire field for that much time is near impossible.

Russell Wilson does this really well for the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL. Wilson is surrounded by a mediocre receiving corps, terrible offensive line play, and running backs that would be change of pace backs at best on most NFL teams. Because Wilson can break the pocket and force the defensive backfield to defend the whole field the Seahawks are one of the hardest teams to prepare for in the league. While Howell isn’t Wilson, he provides that same threat.

The biggest adjustment Howell is going to have to make from competing against Charlotte Catholic and Cox Mill to playing against Miami and Virginia Tech is that he will no longer be the best athlete on the field. Often times Howell showed a confident brashness to both his passing and running abilities, and that confidence is what made him so great in high school and what will make him great in college.

There will be a natural adjustment period however, if/when Howell gets on the field next season expect some wow moments as well as some true freshman growing pains. Howell is more than talented enough to challenge Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin for the starting job (we’re just going to go ahead and assume that Nathan Elliott and Chaz Surratt aren’t in the competition).

Despite the competition in the quarterback room in 2019, Howell will most likely see the field in some capacity. Ideally that capacity is anything other than how Georgia used Justin Fields last season: sparingly in every single game, not enough to keep him happy but enough to burn his redshirt year. All the offensive skill players coming back to Chapel Hill next year and the new-style air raid offense the Tar Heels will be running a lot is in place for Howell to be successful. Even if some combination of Ruder/Fortin play the majority of the year to preserve Howell’s redshirt season, Howell could produce some special plays and everyone should be excited about his future.

P.S. Enjoy his highlights from the All American Game.