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UNC Football Position Preview: Quarterbacks

For the first time in forever, the Tar Heels enter the season with a stable QB situation.

Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman - North Carolina v Temple Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

There was lots of speculation coming into last season as to who would be Carolina’s starting quarterback. It was a three-man competition between true freshman Sam Howell and redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder. For months, Mack Brown and his staff declined to name a starter until finally, just weeks before the start of the season, Howell began receiving first-team reps.

Understandably, Fortin elected to enter the transfer portal shortly after this decision, leaving Howell and Ruder as the only two scholarship QBs on the roster. Then, four games into the season, Ruder broke his leg and was forced to sit out the remainder of the year. This meant that Howell, a true freshman with just a few college football games under his belt, was the only viable option. With such little experience and a restricted playbook due to the lack of depth, expectations for Howell were tempered a bit. However, he went on to have one of the best seasons a Tar Heel quarterback has ever had, regardless of class.

Howell’s 38 passing touchdowns broke both the UNC and NCAA true freshman single-season records. He finished fourth in the country for passing TDs, with Joe Burrow (LSU), Anthony Gordon (Washington State), and Justin Fields (Ohio State) as the only players to finish ahead of him. Howell also threw for 3,641 yards which was good for 14th in the nation. Even beyond statistics, Howell led multiple fourth quarter comebacks and if at any point he became fazed or rattled, he sure as hell never showed it.

All of this to say, the Tar Heels have reason to be confident in the quarterback position for the first time in years. So without further ado, let’s dive into the position preview.

Key Losses

None. Technically, Cade Fortin was on the 2019 roster at some point and is obviously no longer on the team, but the Heels have already weathered that loss.

Key Returnees

Sam Howell

Most of what I would write here can be found above but there’s always more to say about this dude. He was named to the Davey O’Brien Award Watch List for the best QB in the nation and many consider him a sleeper pick (if you can call it that) to win the Heisman. After winning ACC Offensive and Overall Rookie of the Year in 2019, Howell will look to somehow improve on what was an incredible freshman campaign.

Jace Ruder

Ruder has struggled with injuries ever since he got to Chapel Hill. His debut for the Heels back in November of 2018 against Georgia Tech was cut short after a left shoulder injury. And as previously mentioned, he missed the majority of last season with a broken leg. However, Ruder has been solid when he’s gotten on the field, completing five of seven passes for 87 yards and a touchdown as well as seven rushes for 43 yards. Howell is the guy, but don’t be surprised if the Heels find ways to implement Ruder into the offense more this year.

Key Additions

Jacolby Criswell

Criswell was the lone quarterback in Carolina’s 2020 recruiting class. Standing at 6’1, 220 pounds, he’s a four-star dual-threat QB out of Morrilton, Arkansas. According to 247sports, Criswell is the 11th best dual-threat QB and 261st overall in his class. He likely won’t see the field a whole lot this season barring unforeseen circumstances, but he gives the Heels some much-needed depth at a position in which they’ve struggled to stay healthy in recent years.


I talked earlier about how expectations for Howell last season were not insanely high due to a few different factors. Well now, expectations are very, very high. It’s not often that you find someone with the combination of passing ability and mental toughness that Howell possesses. When you throw in the facts that he now has en entire season under his belt and the Tar Heel offense returns 10 of its 11 starters, it’s hard not to get excited.

From a statistical standpoint, though, how realistic is it to expect him to improve? Howell broke school, conference, and national records en route to one of the best rookie seasons in the history of college football. The numbers he put up will be hard to replicate, especially now that teams will be playing shorter seasons thanks to COVID-19, but lucky for Tar Heel fans, Howell is way more concerned with winning football games.

Moreover, the value of having two competent backup QBs in Ruder and Criswell cannot be overstated. Not only does it give Carolina a safety net should Howell get injured, but it also opens up the offense. Mack Brown was transparent about how much he restricted the number of QB runs/RPOs called last season because the team simply could not afford to lose its lone healthy scholarship quarterback. The Heels should be able to really open things up this season and we could see a dimension to Howell’s game that we’ve never seen before, which is scary to think about.

In the event of an injury to their star QB (knock on wood), I don’t think Carolina fans would be overly upset at the idea of Jace Ruder leading the offense. He’s been in the system for two years now, he’s proven he can play, and he’s as healthy as he’s been in a long time. With Ruder, Criswell, and walk-on Vincent Amendola (who had a few solid tosses against Mercer and NC State last season while serving as the primary backup for most of the year) all playing behind a potential Heisman candidate in Howell, I’d say the Heels are sitting pretty when it comes to the quarterback position.