Tar Heel Blog kicks off its college football position preview series with the most important position on the field: Quarterback. Any and all expectations for the team’s overall success - and the Tar Heels are expected to win the ACC Coastal Division - begin and end with Carolina’s talismanic gunslinger — Sam Howell.
The junior signal caller completed a fantastic sophomore season, eclipsing Trevor Lawrence’s ACC record of 66 touchdown passes in the first two years of play by two. The Carolina offense, directed by Howell, but really led by the departed Gruesome Twosome of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, was a behemoth that averaged 41.7 points per game. With Carter and Williams off to run for the Jets and Broncos, respectively, the offense will be even more reliant on Howell, and he will have the tools necessary to do the job.
The entire starting offensive line returns. Howell has a receiving corps that returns Beau Corrales from injury, and sees young stars Josh Downs, Emery Simmons, and Khafre Brown elevated to replace Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, now catching passes in Washington and Chicago. The running back room is filled with young talent and a Tennessee transfer in Ty Chandler, but the churn and expected drop off after the loss of generational talent from last season’s dual leaders will put more onus on Howell.
Expectations are enormous. To date, he is on the watchlist for the Walter Camp Player of the Year award, preseason All-ACC team, and is the preseason ACC Player of the Year:
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, Howell’s shoulders are broad enough to handle the load. Let’s take a look at UNC’s quarterback situation.
For the second consecutive year, UNC did not suffer any key losses in the quarterback room. Sam Howell returns as the undisputed starter, and sophomore Jacolby Criswell will begin a season-long competition with freshman Drake Maye for backup snaps.
Phil Longo will keep his fingers crossed for enough huge leads at the end of third quarters so he can pull Howell out of decided games to get some live action for Criswell. If UNC requires Howell for all four quarters, there is a danger of losing Criswell to transfer should freshman Drake Maye overtake him, especially with Conner Harrell arriving in the spring.
Flipping Carolina legacy recruit Drake Maye from Alabama was a real statement of intent from Mack Brown and his recruiting team. The 4-star recruit has a tantalizing arm with accuracy to all levels. He has touch and power. He also has something that both Howell and Criswell lack: height. Standing 6’5”, Drake Maye can stand back, survey the field, and throw over the line. The only issue? Maye is currently a “svelte” 220 pounds and may not be as suited to taking a college-sized pounding the way Howell and Criswell can. He’ll need to stuff a lot of Bojangles to bulk up.
This is the most consequential season in UNC football history, or at least since 1997. Clemson is still the odds-on favorite to reach the College Football Playoff, but Trevor Lawrence is gone and Howell is now at the top of the quarterback pecking order.
Converging team circumstances will likely elevate Howell’s individual performance this season. An overall downgrade at the running back position (inevitable when losing the best running back duo in school history) will likely mean an emphasis on the passing game. An improved defense will give the offense more possessions. If Carolina can be efficient and play with a killer instinct, Sam Howell should be able to do his work early, build huge leads, and then put on a headset late in the second half.
Howell will need plenty of chicken to fuel his run to the Heisman Trophy. His running backs have promise, but aside from Ty Chandler, no college credentials. The receivers are talented, but will take a huge step up in responsibility. The Orange Bowl gave us a sneak peek into how the passing game may pan out, with Josh Downs having a breakout game against Texas A&M - four catches, 91 yards, 2 TDs, including this 75-yard beauty:
If Howell can limit his sacks and turnovers, there’s no reason why he won’t make it to New York, and UNC will make it to Charlotte to take on Clemson for the ACC title. This season will be one for the record books, and in all likelihood, Howell’s last in Chapel Hill. Settle in, enjoy it, and burn some memories into the back of your brain so you can tell your grandkids what it was like to watch the best quarterback in North Carolina history.