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UNC Football Position Previews: Quarterbacks

Our previews kick off with the biggest question mark.

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NCAA Football: Western Carolina at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Nothing like starting off the position previews with the most obvious question.

Sam Howell made this part of our position previews pretty easy for the last few years. Sure, in 2019 we didn’t know what we were getting but it was pretty obvious after Spring Ball that Howell was going to be the starter. His subsequent seasons gave Carolina a ridiculous amount of stability and was the main source of the building hype that led to last year’s lofty expectations.

Success or disappointment aside, Howell is gone now and in training camp with the Washington Commanders, and for the first time under Mack Brown 2.0 the Tar Heels have an honest to God quarterback competition heading into the season. It’s anyone’s guess as to who will take the mantle as the man under center, but unlike the last time Carolina had a real quarterback competition, the talent is there for whoever takes the snaps.

Let’s take a look a the position.

Key Losses

Only one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in UNC history in Sam Howell. Need any reminders of his worth? Just look at this table from Sports Reference with his passing and rushing.

One just doesn’t land 3,000+ yard passers magically, and that’s an insane amount of stats that Carolina now has to replace. The stats, though, are just one part. From the jump, Howell was the unquestioned number 1 quarterback, secure in the fact that no one was breathing down his neck to take his job, and no one on the team or in the stands questioned it. Now, that’s all up in the air whomever gets the job.

Key Additions

Conner Harrell

It’s no so much that Conner is a key addition but rather this is to highlight the fact that unlike when Howell arrived, the two fighting for the top spot have at least a year in the system.

Harrell, though, was an early enrollee and isn’t exactly an afterthought on the roster. He was named the 2021 High School Football America National Player of the year. He completed 69 percent of his passes for 2,804 yards, and 41 touchdowns as he led Thompson High School to back-to-back Alabama 7A state titles. He got his fair share of snaps in the Spring Game, and is the clear third quarterback. If one of the others step up to be the clear starter and another transfers or gets hurt, he could see time on the field quickly.


Finally the meat of our discussion, right?

We start summer camp with both Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye taking an equal share of the snaps as they both work to replace Sam Howell under center. Criswell comes in as a third-year sophomore, and Maye is a second-year freshman. Both have had plenty of time, unlike Howell, to study the Phil Longo playbook for seasons and start to grasp the offense. both were four star athletes out of high school, with Criswell listed as a dual-threat, while Maye listed more as a pro-style.

Ultimately, both had their moments in the spring game, both took about the same number of snaps in the open practice on Saturday, and neither are going to be made available to the media anytime soon. The thing is, one of them has to be the first quarterback off the bench with the starters on August 27th, and Mack Brown laid out exactly who would get that call -

“Phil and I’ve talked about it, we will press both of those quarterbacks really hard every day...And it’ll be easier to determine who’s moving the ball when we put pads on. And then we’ll take the one that has the most success in the preseason against everything Gene and the defensive staff can bring against them and then put them in there as a starter that first game.”

The decision may not come until the week of the game because if someone is going to lead the ones then the game week prep will need to be designed around that quarterback doing so. The question is, will the player that comes in second be content knowing he did while also know he’ll have a chance to step up to that role during the season? With a schedule that sees Florida A&M, Appalachian State, and Georgia State before an off week and Notre Dame, it’s pretty fair to assume that both will be given the chance to shine and the off week will be used to either settle a main quarterback or tweak the offense to use both equally.

The thing is, there’s just no way to know.

Longo’s insistence of Howell rushing the ball last year leads one to believe he wants to use the dual-threat ability of Criswell. But with a weapon like Josh Downs on the field and the offense actually being based on the Air Raid, clearly they want to sling it down as well, which is where Maye supposedly excels. Will Longo type-cast the two quarterbacks or mix things up by playing off the supposed dual threat ability of Criswell while pulling Maye out for a designed rush? How much of the playbook that we see the first three weeks will be permanent and how much is just creating tape for future opponents to study and to try figure out the offense?

The fact is that Mack Brown is not shy about using two quarterbacks, and that unless he has a star like a Sam Howell or a Vince Young, his MO has been to play multiple signal callers. Practice is great, but sometimes the only way you get a true sense of someone’s play is during actual game action, and sometimes a defense is better set up for one style of play over another. So what should we expect this season?

Your guess is as good as mine. Hopefully, it’s two guys so successful under center that the Tar Heels defy exceptions and end up in Charlotte, but there will be growing pains. How sharp those pains are will determine the success or failure of this season.