Sam Howell’s first six months in Chapel Hill have been, to say the least, productive. The true first-year quarterback enrolled early, turned heads at practice with his arm strength and impressed veteran teammates with his work ethic.
As of this week, he’s also North Carolina’s starting quarterback.
Head coach Mack Brown, who last week announced Howell was working with the first-team offense, confirmed Monday the Monroe native will start for UNC in Saturday’s Belk College Kickoff against South Carolina in Charlotte.
Based on available records, Howell will be the first true first-year quarterback to start a season opener in program history.
“That's something I've been working for a long time,” the quarterback said Tuesday. “I really wanted to be the guy to lead this football team.”
Howell beat out redshirt first-years Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin for the spot. Both Ruder and Fortin appeared for UNC last season, and Howell complimented their willingness to give him pointers from those reps — along with their general professionalism throughout the process.
“The competition made me a better player,” he said.
Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo have intimated Ruder, Howell’s backup, may take some snaps Saturday. Fortin entered the transfer portal last week, and true first-year walk-on Vincent Amendola is now the third-string quarterback. But Howell, as of now, is the established leader of North Carolina’s new Air Raid offense.
Notable offensive weapons he’ll have at his disposal include running backs Antonio Williams, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams; wide receivers Dazz Newsome, Dyami Brown and Antoine Green; and tight end Carl Tucker.
Antonio Williams said Howell “knows the offense better than anyone” — so well that skill position players have started looking to him to answer questions in the huddle. Williams said it’s a result of the extra work teammates have seen Howell put in, whether on the field in late-night throwing sessions or off it with extensive film sessions.
“The guy’s always studying,” Williams said.
From a leadership standpoint, Howell said being named the first-team quarterback, and subsequently this weekend’s starter, has given him “an easier platform to step up.” The preseason naming of a starter is a notable change from the Tar Heels’ last two seasons.
In 2017, after Mitchell Trubisky left UNC for the NFL Draft, UNC had another three-man competition for the position in Brandon Harris, Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott. But there was little clarity on the starter until Harris jogged out for the team’s opening series against California.
It was the same in 2018, when Elliott and Surratt were the two main contenders for the spot — Surratt’s four-game suspension in the preseason was the only thing that cleared up who would start.
With Brown’s announcement of Howell as the starter, teammates have opened up with more compliments. Williams, for example, referenced a 2015 game between his alma mater, North Stanly, and Howell’s alma mater, Sun Valley.
The former ran 29 times for 361 yards and four touchdowns. The latter, in his first year of high school, threw for 391 yards and four touchdowns in a 63-38 shootout win.
“From that point, I knew he was going to be an elite guy,” Williams said.
As he prepares for his first career game — in the stadium he grew up watching Carolina Panthers games in, at that — he said he’ll have some nerves. It would be crazy not to.
“I'm not scared or anything like that, but it is a big stage and a stage I really haven't been on before,” Howell said. “But I'm confident in myself, confident in my team and I know my teammates have my back.”