Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: UNC football is in the midst of a preseason 3-way quarterback battle where the competitors have approximately 1.5 games of college football experience between them. Many of UNC’s woes the past two years have been due to a void at the quarterback position, which we’ve cried about enough here. Now, finally, is time for the future to become the present. Without further ado, let’s kick off our run through UNC’s position groups with inarguably the most important and probably the most mysterious one on the Tar Heels’ roster: quarterback.
When you have three freshmen competing for the job, there’s not much to go on. I’m stretching the definition of “freshman,” though, as Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin enrolled in 2018 and redshirted after not meeting the requisite 4 games necessary for a freshman to lose their eligibility after both being injured in their first appearances behind center (Fortin came back for the end of the season). Both were highly coveted recruits; Ruder was a 247 Composite four-star, and Fortin flipped from Texas A&M to UNC and likely would have been rated higher than the 29th-best pro-style quarterback in the country if not for having fractured a leg that didn’t let him play his senior season. Normally, that’s not worth much once guys have played in college, but... well... that’s the whole problem here.
Let’s quickly get through the action we have seen from Ruder and Fortin. We saw Fortin first; he played garbage time against ECU and showed some juice in his arm but also that he clearly needed to settle into the college game. The next time we saw him was as a starter against Virginia Tech, where he still didn’t look totally comfortable but was able to improvise with checkdowns and some lumbering scrambles to the tune of three scoring drives before getting injured just before halftime. He then came back from that injury for the last game of the season, against N.C. State, where he looked comfortable in the pocket, threw darts all over the field, and commanded the offense completely. Unfortunately, his receivers registered about 7 drops (unofficial count from memory), giving him a rather ugly statline of 19/40 for 276 yards, a touchdown, and a pick (his only one of the season). Still, he showed confidence, poise, and the ability to match, giving some confidence as to his abilities for the upcoming year.
Ruder’s story is much shorter. We saw him once, midgame against Georgia Tech when it was clear that the original gameplan wasn’t working. Down 21-7, Ruder orchestrated a 15-play drive that, through a mixture of UNC’s rushing attack, his own legs, and a couple of timely passing first downs, got to the Georgia Tech 1 before fizzling out for a field goal. He got the ball back, bombed a deep ball to Anthony Ratliff-Williams about two plays after the receiver had dropped an easy reception deep, then finished up with a touchdown strike to Carl Tucker. Unlike Fortin, he didn’t seem to need live snaps to look comfortable, and his ability to lead the team was obvious, as was the multifaceted threat he presented behind center. Unfortunately, he left the game with a shoulder injury after the touchdown drive and was done for the season. His final statline was 4/5 for 80 yards and a touchdown, with the incompletion being a blatant drop:
The offseason buzz before their first season was that Fortin, who had come from a more intricate high school offense, was a fine player, picked up the offense quickly, and was probably the more developed passer of the two, and that Ruder, while still learning to be a consistent passer, had an “it” factor that made everybody around him better to a noticeable degree. Both of these things were borne out in limited sample size in their appearances during the season: Fortin came in first, and executed every read he was asked to, even though his accuracy took some time to catch up. Ruder came in and immediately led an offense that had been stagnant to 10 straight points. And while they’re learning a whole new system this offseason, those are the experiences they’ll hope to grow from as this season gets underway.
UNC’s most-discussed recruit of the 2019 season was Sam Howell, the kid from Monroe, North Carolina who had been committed to Florida State before flipping on Signing Day to Mack Brown and the UNC Tar Heels. The consensus four-star and second-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation per the 247 Composite, albeit in a weak class, was a subject of constant speculation around the college football world, including here, during a tumultuous last couple months before the December Signing Day.
My colleague Jacob did a pretty in-depth breakdown of Howell back in February, so check that out for a complete look at him. I’ll summarize: He’s short but thickly built and takes contact well, has excellent pocket mobility, and has a cannon arm that allows him to make every necessary throw even when he’s not set, with serviceable accuracy to all three levels of the field. He has experience hitting tight windows on in- and out-breaking routes to outside receivers. He’s had a tendency to play like he’s the biggest dude in the park, which is going to be part of what makes him great, but is also going to need to be managed with the reality that he’s in the ACC now: he isn’t fast enough to scramble effectively in college and nobody can expect to just take hits. Aaaand done. Oh, wait, here are the statistics: as a senior in high school, he passed for 3240 yards and 36 touchdowns en route to a 10-2 season, and those were fairly modest numbers for his high school career. In the Army All-American game, he was 11/13 for 167 yards with a passing and rushing touchdown apiece. It’s pretty clear that he can play.
Howell has been practicing with UNC since the beginning of the year thanks to enrolling early, putting him firmly in the mix to start right away. Mack Brown has been effusive in his praise for him and hasn’t really seemed to demarcate between him and the returners, which leds us to...
What to Expect
Mack Brown has been, maybe predictably given the machinations of football coaches across the country, extremely cagey about the quarterback competition he’s got on his hands. Let’s take a run through everything he’s said:
- He’s clearly okay with the talent he’s got on hand, having said at some point that he’d have recruited all three to Texas. We’ve talked about this before.
- All of them are learning a new offense and have had their ups and downs, to the point where, according to Brown, the coaching staff put the QB competition on hold so that they could focus on picking up Phil Longo’s playbook, style, and tendencies. All three struggled with turnovers in spring practice.
- Here’s what he’s said about their respective abilities:
Cade is probably, he’s got the old, prototypical NFL arm. He’s tall. He looks the field well and can throw the out [route]. A little bit shy. Not as aggressive with the team.
Jace, he’s not been in a passing offense. He’s more of a runner. He’s big. I think he’s 6-2, 225 or something [author’s note: GoHeels.com lists him at 6’3, 225). And can fly. He’s really aggressive. His throwing got much better this spring. But he’s had a sore elbow. That affected [him] some.
And probably Sam is halfway between. He’s a really good thrower. He’s very accurate. He probably runs more like Cade, not nearly as athletic as Jace. ... He doesn’t talk a lot. He hasn’t been outwardly aggressive at all as a leader.
- Really, his clearest and most consistent message has been that with three starter-quality quarterbacks, he’s expecting at least one to transfer; he’s said that several times. To alleviate his fear, he’s said, he might just employ a rotation of at least two of the guys... how that would work out is unknown. We saw it with decidedly mixed results back in 2014/15 with Mitch Trubisky and Marquise Williams, so hopefully it’s better if Brown decides on such an arrangement this year.
- Oh, and this absolute gem of coachspeak: Coach, who’s going to start against South Carolina? “[It’s going to be the QB who] moves the team the best and gets in the end zone.”
So where does this leave us for a preview? Phil Steele’s one of the most respected college football media guys out there, and he thinks, based on his own evaluation and what he’s gleaned from conversations with Mack Brown, that Howell’s going to get the nod, and he’s not alone: it’s a popular notion that starting the local kid is going to cap off a spring and summer that Mack has spent repairing the program’s relationship with the state, and it doesn’t hurt that he was the highest-rated recruit of the three, and that he’s the only one whom Brown actively recruited.
But based on what we’ve got to go on, it doesn’t make much sense. First of all, you have to have the future in mind. Howell is the only one of the three with a redshirt to spare; he’s got at least a year to start that the other two don’t. If he takes the job now, neither Fortin nor Howell is likely to start another game in a UNC uniform barring injury, making both liable to transfer and leave UNC possibly just 2-deep at quarterback next year, with no 2020 QB other than the committed Jacolby Criswell really getting attention from the UNC staff. Unless he’s the clear-cut best player of the three, and it doesn’t sound like he is, making him the 2019 starter isn’t the best thing for the program’s near future. Brown’s clearly worried about transfers in this group, and doing the thing that would make him most susceptible to that very situation doesn’t seem very smart.
Second, take a look back at the evaluations he gave. He started out saying Howell was between the extremes that Ruder and Fortin provided, then decided that he was a lot more like Fortin even in his Ruder-like qualities. And if you’ve got two of basically the same player, again, unless one’s significantly better, you start a) the more experienced one, and b) the one who’s more likely to transfer if you don’t. It’s hard to overstate how important the quarterback position is, and Mack needs to keep it as much under his control as he can. But the most compelling thing, to me, is what Brown said about Fortin and Howell as leaders: Both were described as lacking aggression, whereas Ruder is “really aggressive.” I think this goes back to the “it” factor I mentioned way back in the returners section, which Jacob also touched on a year ago when he took a look at what we were getting with Ruder and Fortin’s high school tape. It’s limited evidence, but it looks like he’s the guy of the three who’s going to bring the kind of energy that teammates respond to, that gets people on the same page faster, and that makes players play better just for being around it. You don’t need to be that kind of quarterback in order to succeed, particularly when you’ve already got a track record, time to build individual relationships, and entrenched leadership. On a team that currently has none of that, though, it seems to me that Ruder’s reported energy might be exactly what the team needs.
What we know is, that for the first time in 3 years, UNC’s got multiple quarterbacks who can sling it and lead an offense. If Ruder’s really gotten a lot more accurate since his high school tape, and limited sample size points to yes, that’s three quarterbacks with live arms and good placement, plus all of them present a decent (and in Ruder’s case, lethal) threat with their legs. We don’t know who we’re going to see behind center on August 31st and beyond. I suspect it’ll be Jace Ruder, but we’re all truly in the dark here. But I’m pretty sure that whoever it is, they’re going to be fun to watch, and that’s not something I’ve been able to say since 2016. And I could not be more ready for it.