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An early look at #HowellForHeisman

The Tar Heel signal-caller is going to have all eyes on him for his junior year and might face an uphill battle

NCAA Football: Orange Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

While investigating Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown tape for NFL Draft prep, DraftTwitter has inevitably noticed the guy who’s throwing them the ball, that is, one Sam Howell. Early returns on his early draftability aren’t unilaterally positive, but we’ll save that conversation for a later date. Right now, what’s important is that Howell is an elite college quarterback, and there isn’t exactly a huge crop of experienced, elite college quarterbacks left in the country — making Howell one of the early favorites for the 2021 Heisman Trophy. Early odds have him somewhere between 7/1 and 8/1 to win the trophy, which is tied for fourth-best (with D.J. Uigalelei) behind OU’s Spencer Rattler, Alabama’s Bryce Young, and Georgia’s J.T. Daniels — four quarterbacks from college football’s bluebloods, and Howell. How, on first look, does the guy in Chapel Hill stack up? Let’s take a look.

Track Records

Of those five names, Rattler, Daniels, and Howell have played at least one full college season, and only Howell has played two full seasons: Daniels played four games for Georgia last year after transferring from USC (where he was a freshman starter), and Rattler (of reality television fame) played spot duty in his freshman year before taking the starting reins last year. Last year, Rattler was 214/371 (67.5%) for 3031 yards, 28 touchdowns and 7 interceptions (5 in his first four games), averaging 9.6 yards per attempt for a college passer rating of 172.6; his late-season improvement, including a dominant performance against Florida in the postseason, is a big reason he’s the easy favorite right now. Daniels, in four games to end the season in Athens, was 80/119 (67.2%) for 1231 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 2 picks, averaging 10.3 yards per attempt and earning a college passer rating of 178.5. With the small sample size disclaimer, that was a sharp improvement from a promising but uneven rookie season, where he averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, threw 14 touchdowns to 10 picks, and had a passer rating of 128.6. For those to whom QB Wins matter, Rattler went 9-2 and Daniels went 4-0.

As a reminder, Howell’s sophomore year ended up with a line of 237/348 (68.1%) for 3586 yards, 30 touchdowns, and 7 picks, giving him 10.3 yards per attempt and a college rating of 179.1 — marginally better than the other two experienced (which is to say, draft-eligible) quarterbacks on the list, but not enough to mark him as clearly the best performer, especially given his four losses (in the eyes of the Heisman committee). He certainly, however, stacks up, and given UNC’s seemingly favorable schedule in 2021, he has the ability to put up Heisman-level stats.

As for Uigalelei and Young, the second-best and best quarterback recruits of the class of 2020, we’ve only seen Uigalelei in anything resembling real college action, filling in for Trevor Lawrence for two games in the middle of the season. He was very impressive in those two games, completing 59 of his 85 passes (69.4%) for 781 yards (9.2 yards per attempt) and 4 touchdowns and no interceptions, and that’s got a lot of people projecting little to no dropoff in Clemson’s passing game. Young only ever appeared in spot duty and was unremarkable.

Context of schedules, surrounding talent, and competition aside, it certainly appears at first glance that Howell might have the best track record of next year’s Heisman-contending quarterbacks, and certainly not one that’s notably worse than his competition. But the past isn’t the only predictor of the future, so let’s take a look at some of that context:


Going back to my intro, one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding Howell is how he will deal with losing his top two receivers (Brown and Newsome) and top two running backs (Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, also expected to be top-150 draft picks) from his first two years of college ball. Before we answer that question, though, let’s look at the competition.

Clemson loses their top two receivers and their star running back, Travis Etienne. Alabama loses their top two receivers and their star running back. Georgia returns about all of their receiving and rushing production, but while their receivers and running backs are talented, none have so far been on the level of the Heels, Tigers, and Tide members departing. And Oklahoma is losing its top running back, but returns its top two receivers, which has to be figuring into Rattler’s favorable early odds as well. In summation, Alabama, Clemson, and UNC have basically all of their rushing and receiving production to replace, and Oklahoma and Georgia have experience coming back, but not at the level of the guys that the first three were losing. Also, a potentially underrated aspect of returning production is offensive line starts, of which Georgia returns 42%, Oklahoma returns 64%, Alabama returns 29%, Clemson returns 83%, and UNC, of course, returns 100% — Howell’s protection, spotty at times against good pass rushing units, has the benefit of an entire season’s worth of chemistry in front of him that his competition does not.

The reason that people seem disproportionately worried about Howell, as far as I’m concerned, is that they know that Bama and Clemson have a stable of blue-chip ‘croots ready to come in without missing a beat, they don’t expect the same of UNC; rather, they think UNC having four draftable skill position players is an aberration rather than a sign of the program. At the risk of strawmanning national sports media, that’s a flawed assumption: In line to take over for Newsome and Brown are Josh Downs and Brown’s younger brother Khafre, both 4-star prospects who started the Orange Bowl game out of which the elder Heels opted. Downs absolutely starred, with 4 catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns. Brown had two catches for 40 yards, and a drop that would have been a touchdown if he’d hauled it in. Both got open consistently against the defense of a top-6 team, and are setting themselves up for success next year. Besides them, there’s Emery Simmons, who was a top-500 player in his class and has already outplayed his ranking in a small amount of playing time. The running back side is less certain, but 4-star freshman Kamarro Edmonds is coming in to bolster the stable, and many around the program seem to think Caleb Hood is going to outplay his ranking at the position after transitioning from high school quarterback. Howell’s not going to be lacking for surrounding talent, and he should have the time to make plays without needing time for an offensive line to gel.

The Elephant in the Room

Only once in the past decade has the Heisman trophy gone to a player on a team that didn’t win their conference, and that was when Lamar Jackson turned college football into his personal video game for a year. Sam Howell, for all his excellence, isn’t Lamar Jackson, so he probably needs to win the ACC, or pull a Georgia-in-the-SEC and make the CFP without winning the conference, to win the Heisman. Rattler’s Oklahoma is heavily favored to win the Big 12, Alabama is the National Championship favorite, and Georgia will be favored to win every game they play except for their matchup(s) against ‘Bama. And then we get to the ACC, where Clemson has the second-best odds to win a natty, and UNC is sitting around #10, not even close. Every quarterback in the mix but Howell is being expected to lead a Playoff-caliber team, which is probably going to end up being a requirement for this year’s Heisman unless, again, there’s another Lamar Jackson somewhere in the country that we don’t know about. A look at UNC’s schedule makes it look pretty favorable with blue-tinted glasses, which say the Heels should be favored in every regular-season game and about even with an Ian Book-less Notre Dame. But will that match reality, or is UNC still not quite good enough for us to expect to actually win every game they’re favored in, successfully avoiding the FSU’s and the Virginias (both of whom UNC will play again this fall)?

If they are, it’ll be on the arm of Sam Howell, and UNC could end up finding itself in the national top-10 or better. We know how good Howell can be, and he’s still got room for improvement that, given Phil Longo’s track record of teaching, we could well see in his likely last year of college football. But ultimately, if he’s going to have a case for the Heisman, the Heels are going to have to become consistent winners. Howell is a Heisman-caliber player. Can the Heels be a Heisman-caliber team?