We’ve already written a fair bit about Sam Howell’s impending junior season for UNC (see here and here), and will probably write more about it in the next two months as football season draws closer and the preseason publicity push for Howell’s Heisman campaign grows stronger. Howell is already probably the best quarterback who’s ever played for UNC and looks poised to hold nearly every passing record the school tracks by the end of his career — he’s already tied for the career passing touchdowns lead and fifth in yards after just two seasons. His greatness as a Heel is already established and we just have to hope that it can lead, and be helped, to a 2021 season that spells national relevance for the Heels.
This article won’t be about that, though. In college football, backup quarterback isn’t just an insurance job, in case (rest assured I am furiously knocking on wood as I type this) the starting quarterback gets hurt. It’s also the prime spot for future development, the way that a team makes sure that the transition from one quarterback to the next is as seamless as possible through game reps in blowouts, opportunities with the starters in practice, and general attention given to the player’s picking up of the offensive system and strategies. Last year, true freshman Jacolby Criswell, one of Phil Longo’s first prize recruits to Chapel Hill, beat Jace Ruder out for those opportunities, probably contributing to Ruder grad transferring to North Texas after the season was over. This year, Criswell retains his freshman status thanks to the COVID-19 eligibility freeze, but the situation around him has changed significantly: rather than a veteran who was recruited by a prior coaching staff, the quarterback room besides Howell and Criswell now consists of two recruits in the 2021 class: Drake Maye, a five-star Tar Heel legacy a couple times over, and Jefferson Boaz, a fairly under-recruited quarterback who might end up playing tight end but meanwhile keeps hanging around at quarterback and will be there for this season, according to InsideCarolina. Based on some early practice reports and their recruiting rankings, Boaz isn’t super likely to be Howell’s primary backup (but you never know), but the battle between Criswell and Maye is going to be one to watch. Here’s an initial look at the contest:
Criswell, in his recruitment, was hyped as a Donovan McNabb-lite: a strong-bodied, mobile quarterback with a pass-first mentality and a cannon for an arm. Longo himself actually made the McNabb comparison, going so far as to say Criswell was a better passer than young McNabb. In other words, he fits the Phil Longo prototype to a T, based both on the good parts of his work with Jordan Ta’amu and the type of quarterback he’s molded Sam Howell into. Funnily enough, his 247 profile now lists his comparison as... Sam Howell. It was no surprise that Longo prioritized him as much as he did once he started recruiting to UNC, and it’s clear that he and the rest of the staff had faith in him from the beginning to play him over Ruder, who had impressed the staff in the last year even though he was backing up Howell. That faith only went so far, however, as even though he played plenty of spot snaps in blowouts and at the ends of games, nearly every snap he took was either a straight handoff or a read-option - he carried 9 times (and never all that successfully), handed off a handful more, and only threw 4 passes, one of which was picked off. Worse, he generally didn’t look fully adjusted to the college game, even against an FCS team like Western Carolina, despite his obvious positive traits. Part of that was definitely not getting the chance to really play on his terms, instead getting nonstop handoff calls, but that has to go both ways.
To his credit, Mack Brown has been open about the fact that not having a spring offseason last year hurt him tremendously, and that with a spring session this year, he’s looked miles better than he did in practices last year. That was somewhat borne out in the Spring Game, where he did open as QB2, and while he didn’t get a ton of opportunity thanks to a backup offensive line that couldn’t give him time to throw, he showed off more decisive legs and uncorked a great deep ball to Justin Olsen. I would have liked to see him be given the opportunity to show off more pocket mobility; he took several “sacks” in the Spring Game that he looked like he could have slid past with footwork and timing if the plays hadn’t been blown dead to protect the quarterback. He’s definitely already grown into his body; he looks the part of a college quarterback already and looks assured with all his movement on the field. I’m interested to see what he looks like in live game reps now, with more seasoning and, it seems, being more ready to play than he was a year ago. A stylistic comparison to Sam Howell, if it bears true, could be incredible for UNC’s continuity as far as offensive system and chemistry go.
Drake is the son of former UNC quarterback Mark and the brother of former UNC basketball standout Luke, which tied him to Chapel Hill from the moment he entered serious recruiting conversations, as if being an elite North Carolina player wasn’t enough for the Myers Park (Charlotte) star. The ties weren’t strong enough at first, as he committed to Alabama pretty early on in the recruiting process. With some continued hard work from Mack Brown and Dre Bly, he was eventually convinced to flip from ‘Bama to UNC, marking probably the new Mack Brown regime’s biggest recruiting win to date. Maye was a 4-star recruit by 247’s Composite but a 5-star by their in-house rankings — either way, he was highly coveted. Maye’s much more of a prototypical quarterback than either Howell or Criswell from a build standpoint; while both of them stand between 6’0 and 6’1 and thick, Maye’s a pretty lanky 6’5. Accordingly, he’s a little less mobile than either of them and does most of his damage from the pocket, but he’s not a statue, either.
His calling card, though, is his accuracy to all levels of the field. He has plenty of arm talent and knows how to manipulate the ball correctly for different situations: when to drive, when to loft, when to hit his receivers’ numbers and when to lead them and by how much. He’s not unathletic, but he also isn’t much for extending plays right now. That could change, though, as he’s very much still filling out his frame. In the Spring Game, he was noticeably a little gawky compared to his colleagues, and while it didn’t hamper his play much in a non-contact setting, it’s something that has to be a consideration when you’re thinking about putting him in live action. He made several impressive throws in the Spring Game, showing off his aforementioned arm talent and accuracy, but also definitely looked like a practice player for this year. Maybe that changes by September, though.
To Sum Up:
We really know very little about how either Criswell or Maye will look in preseason practices and going into the season, but based on what we do know, both of them have the tools to be UNC’s quarterback of the future, and that we’re not going to be left in UNC 2017-18 limbo. A lot of UNC fans have been quick to anoint Maye as next in line after Howell thanks to his family connections and the inevitable local-player fan buff, but I don’t think Longo’s love of Criswell can be overstated, and I do think he’s physically more ready for live games than Maye right now, as well as offering a bit more as a runner and improviser, which Longo really covets with his improvisation-heavy playbook. I don’t pretend to know who will back up Sam Howell or who starts at quarterback next year, but I’d think Criswell has an early advantage right now. With a year of strength and conditioning for Maye, though, given how much room he has to grow, all bets are off for a year from now.