Soon after Mack Brown announced that Sam Howell had earned the right to start taking the majority of first-team snaps in practice (a convoluted way of saying without saying that he’ll be the starting quarterback this season), UNC fans learned that redshirt freshman Cade Fortin would be entering the transfer portal for the chance to start elsewhere with 3 seasons of eligibility left. It wasn’t unexpected, Mack Brown had made no secret of his expectation that he’d lose one, maybe two of his scholarship quarterbacks before the year was over. If anything, he was way more upfront about it than you’d expect a coach to be. While he’s said that he doesn’t like how easy the new transfer portal rules make it for players to transfer schools, it seems like he was in support of the ability of any of the three to find a place to play a more significant role than third-string quarterback. Based on his comments about their talent, he certainly seems to think they’ll all find success somewhere.
All that is to say that I doubt Coach Brown holds any serious ill will towards Fortin for his attempt to maximize his college career. But, as mentioned in the article announcing his transfer, this leaves UNC with just two scholarship quarterbacks for 2019, both with four years of eligibility. For 2019, that’s a precarious depth situation: You’re just one bad play away from essentially not having a backup at the sport’s most important position. This leads me to my first takeaway from the news:
1. If Mack Brown was planning on rotating quarterbacks against South Carolina, he’s not going to now
My colleague Jake Lawrence has written here previously about how Mack Brown has a history of just platooning his quarterbacks when he has a choice to make in the offseason and hasn’t been able to commit to one or the other. The announcement that Howell would be taking first-team reps (and several statements from players who have been much less coy about the fact that he’s the starter) was a hint that this would not be the case this time, but even if it hadn’t been clear then, it would be lunacy to try that now without a third-string quarterback. That’s probably a good thing; I haven’t seen a single situation where rotating quarterbacks works out for more than one game, and it certainly wouldn’t help when there isn’t any tape on either quarterback in Phil Longo’s offense. Jace Ruder will stay on the sidelines unless Howell gets injured or his helmet comes off and he needs to sit for a play... or he could be benched for performance, but let’s not think about that. By circumstance and his own performance, Sam Howell is now entrenched as UNC’s only planned in-game quarterback, at least for this season.
Knocking on wood, let’s say UNC gets through this season without sustaining any injuries at the quarterbacks position. Howell will have the reins on the position, no matter what the coaching staff says about re-opening the competition and wanting the best player every year to reveal themselves regardless of history. We’ll likely have seen Ruder play odd snaps here and there in blowouts (going either direction), a couple occasions where Howell’s helmet gets knocked off and he has to sit a play, stuff like that, where he’ll give us an idea of how ready he is to play. As Jacolbe Criswell comes into town, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Ruder decided to transfer this time next year, not seeing a road towards consistent playing time barring injury as long as Howell is in Chapel Hill, which would leave him a maximum of one year. And if you can get through one year with two quarterbacks and no major injuries, it’s playing with fire to bet on another. And thus...
2. UNC has to find a short-term third-stringer for 2020
Even if it’s an underperforming grad transfer (in the mold of Brandon Harris, maybe) or an incoming freshman not expected to start for several years, one of the UNC staff’s priorities as the 2020 class starts rounding out should be another quarterback, even if they don’t have the toolbox to compete with Howell and Criswell, just to serve as emergency relief. The prospect of going two seasons with two scholarship quarterbacks and praying for no serious injuries is just not tenable. It doesn’t look like, according to Inside Carolina’s recruiting board, UNC has offers out to any uncommitted 2020 quarterbacks not named Malik Hornsby (who decommitted from UNC back in April and has seen his recruiting interest cool significantly in the meantime), but that could always change. There aren’t a ton of P5-level quarterbacks in the state of North Carolina’s 2020 class, but a guy like Zo Wallace from Gastonia, who has offers from Massachusetts and Akron, could be worth checking out as a backup, and help with the relationship-building this staff has prioritized. The grad transfer market will probably be ripe for picking, as well.
It’s worth noting that technically, there is another player already committed to UNC with experience playing quarterback, and that’s Jefferson Boaz. The 6’8 Boaz plays quarterback for his Mount Airy high school, but has only taken reps at TE at UNC camps and has really good traits as a blocker and route-runner. I don’t know if the UNC staff is going to want him practicing as a quarterback while he learns an all-new position on campus, one that notoriously takes a long time to develop because of its variance from system to system.
3. 2021 and beyond look good, given the requisite work
The young man who some had hailed as UNC’s hope for an auspicious start to the next decade, Drake Maye, has committed to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide despite (due to?) the obvious family ties to UNC. Can’t blame him. North Carolina doesn’t seem to have too many quarterback prospects on the level of Howell or Criswell for 2021, but quarterback recruiting is largely an exception to the rule of trying to keep things in-state; Criswell is from Arkansas. Brown should be sending out feelers right now to whomever he thinks he has a chance with among the top 25-ish rising juniors at the position in the country, and establish a train of getting at least one, but definitely one of those guys per year, the way the position is supposed to be recruited. Out in Texas, Garrett Nussmeier holds a UNC offer and is a guy to look at, with Brown’s connections down there. If they succeed at the position the way their talent says they should, each player has a simple roadmap to follow: redshirt, backup, two-to-three year starter, the way it is at competently coached institutions around the country. In just two years, Brown should be able to reset the weird situation at the position he was left with. And if Howell can shine the way that he needs to given that he won the job over two redshirt freshmen despite the headache that’s now created, UNC will shortly become a very attractive option for incoming college quarterbacks. The woodwork is in place for what looks right now like a very precarious situation to right itself fairly quickly if the on-field results deliver what they needed to deliver anyways.
An expected transfer nevertheless leaves UNC teetering at a knife’s edge regarding the most important position in sports. With any luck, though, the problem will be solved in a couple of years, and be operating at a high level with a plan for the future. But whatever it is, it has to be better than what we as UNC fans have seen the past couple of years. And as we get ready for the Heels’ season to start, just remember that it could almost certainly be worse, and that the situation is going to continue to get better, however it happens. Go Heels!