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Monday December 6th

Why 2019 quarterback Sam Howell, a humble star, flipped from Florida State to UNC

An offensive coordinator change at each school helped cement his decision.

<p>Sun Valley quarterback Sam Howell addresses the media after committing to UNC. Howell is North Carolina's all-time leader in total offense, with over 17,000 yard passing and rushing.</p>
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Sun Valley quarterback Sam Howell addresses the media after committing to UNC. Howell is North Carolina's all-time leader in total offense, with over 17,000 yard passing and rushing.

MONROE — For the better part of five hours, Kristie Mann was working on a deadline as she dotted around town. She bought a helium tank from Walmart and inflated roughly 25 balloons. She bought a handful of craft supplies and cut large question marks out of sheets of white cardstock.

Later that afternoon, at Sun Valley High School, her work was on full display. When four-star quarterback Sam Howell flipped his commitment from Florida State to North Carolina, his sister Anna ripped open the cardboard box next to her. Clusters of Carolina blue and white balloons flew out, as the crowd in the gymnasium roared.

“We were just trying to make it as special as we possibly could, so I put it together, cardboard and all,” joked Mann, a family friend who has known Howell since he was in third grade. “That was my kindergarten craftsmanship.”

For a day that was supposed to be all about Howell, the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the country, he tried his best to direct attention to others.

As he signed his national letter of intent for UNC, he was flanked on his left by Anna and Amy, his mother. To his right were his father Duke and his brother Will. About 10 more family members — grandmothers, great aunts and uncles, various cousins — sat nearby.

Sun Valley quarterback Sam Howell signs his national letter of intent to attend UNC while his family watches in Monroe.

Howell, North Carolina’s all-time leader in total offense, didn’t speak for long. When he did, he credited everyone else involved: his family for the balloon idea, his teammates for his stats, the UNC football coaching staff for their visits and conversations.

“The last two weeks were crazy,” Howell said. “There were a lot of coaches who came in, tried to recruit me. It was stressful at times. Me and my family, we sat down and prayed about it and made the right decision.”

He had chosen Florida State in April and reaffirmed his commitment a few times throughout the fall, as other schools tried to flip him. In mid-November, Howell took an official visit to UNC, then coached by Larry Fedora. But it was two changes in early December that completely convinced him to switch.

On Dec. 3, Walt Bell, Florida State’s offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and Howell’s main recruiter, left for the head coaching job at Massachusetts. Then, on Dec. 11, new UNC head coach Mack Brown hired Phil Longo as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Longo and Howell knew each other from earlier in the process, when Longo tried to recruit Howell to Ole Miss. With Bell gone and Longo in place at UNC, Howell took a second official visit to Chapel Hill on Sunday, a day after playing in the Shrine Bowl. It didn’t hurt that Brown had called Howell to talk about how’d he fit at UNC, within a day of taking the job.

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Howell said. “Me and my family were up there to visit there with Coach Brown a couple of times. We just felt comfortable with that coaching staff and that university.”

On Monday, Howell called FSU head coach Willie Taggart to inform him of his decision. He was insistent on breaking the news over phone — “the right way,” Duke said — rather than over Twitter. From there, arrangements were made for an announcement: Howell was staying at home.

The 6-foot-1 quarterback may not have indulged much on Wednesday, but he was still showered with praise. Sun Valley principal Mike Harvey said that it’s rare in life to meet “such a well-rounded young man.” Tad Baucom, the Spartans’ head coach, listed off six adjectives to describe Howell: humble, unselfish, loyal, reserved, disciplined and compassionate.

And he had anecdotes for each. How his quarterback always wears a bracelet that reads ‘I Am Second’ and beats everyone to 6 a.m. workouts. How he once asked if Baucom’s wife, the team stat keeper, could credit a touchdown to a teammate “who helped get us down there” rather than him. How he lined up at wide receiver to catch passes from star-struck younger quarterbacks at a middle school camp.

“We’ve seen the compassion,” Baucom said. “At pregame meals, he’s the guy pushing in chairs, picking up the green beans that we can’t seem to keep off the floor and fighting me to be the last one through the line to eat.”

Howell’s statistics were read out for all to hear: 205 career touchdowns (third in state history); 13,416 passing yards (second); and 17,036 total yards (first). He led Sun Valley to a 21-7 record over his junior and senior seasons, with one NCHSAA 3AA semifinal appearance. Almost 130 miles away in Chapel Hill, Brown gushed that his new quarterback had “some Baker Mayfield in him.”

“We had a sit down with him to talk about our philosophy, who we were and where we were going,” Brown said in Kenan Memorial Stadium after Howell’s commitment. “He felt like that fit him perfectly. And I do think that the guys want to stay at home. If you can find what you want at home, you stay.”

Back in Monroe, as students headed back to class and the gym was cleared for an upcoming women’s basketball practice, Howell detailed his future plans. He will graduate from Sun Valley this month and play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in early January.

From there, he will enroll at UNC, where quarterback competition awaits him in the form of Nathan Elliott, Chazz Surratt, Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin. But Howell — who traveled to Chapel Hill for the very first and very last official college visits of his high school career — doesn’t mind.

“I was excited to get this over with,” he said, a UNC hat on his head. “I’ve enjoyed the recruiting process, but it’s been going on for a very long time, so I’m just excited that I signed. I’m ready to work.”

Click here for a full Twitter thread of coverage from Howell's announcement. Senior writer Alex Zietlow contributed reporting.

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