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The Daily Tar Heel

Quietly, confidently, Sam Howell leads UNC to season-opening comeback win

First-year quarterback Sam Howell (7) prepares to hand off the ball during during the Belk College Kick Off in Charlotte, NC on Saturday, August 31, 2019. UNC beat South Carolina 24-20.
First-year quarterback Sam Howell (7) prepares to hand off the ball during during the Belk College Kick Off in Charlotte, NC on Saturday, August 31, 2019. UNC beat South Carolina 24-20.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. If you’re a reporter covering the North Carolina football team, and you’re not in the front row of the media swarm surrounding Sam Howell, you’ve got a problem.

The first-year quarterback is almost deceptively quiet, and you’ll have a hard time transcribing his quotes. Your arm might get sore from stretching out your recorder-wielding hand.

Then, if you were to find yourself in this situation, you’d realize what to do: the same thing Howell does. Let his play speak for itself.

In UNC’s season opener against South Carolina on Saturday, Howell lead two fourth quarter drives of 90-plus yards for touchdowns, turning a 20-9 deficit into a 24-20 win. Forget his first career start – it was his first college game, period. He became the only true first-year in UNC history to start a season opener.

Still, his 245 yards, two touchdowns and quiet confidence led the way.

“Sam’s a baller. No matter what situation he’s in, he’s got control,” wide receiver Beau Corrales said. “He’s not an extremely 'rah-rah' type of guy, but the confidence he has, you can feel that.”

It was Corrales who corralled a 17-yard pass from Howell with 8:26 to play for a touchdown, giving the Tar Heels their first lead of the game, a lead they would not relinquish.

The Gamecocks’ next three drives: punt, interception, interception. For the first time since 2014, North Carolina was 1-0.

“I’ve never seen a happier group in the dressing room than they were tonight,” new head coach Mack Brown said. “The ‘05 national championship team was not any happier than this team.”

The thrill of victory is one thing. But the hope and promise of a new season, with Howell under center, is another.

“Just seeing him scramble around and make those plays, that builds a lot of faith and confidence,” offensive lineman Charlie Heck said. “He’s a playmaker, and he went out there and made plays today.”

It wasn’t obvious from the jump. In the first half, Howell was just 7-11 with 94 yards in the air, and the Tar Heels trailed 13-6. Two trips to the red zone had ended in two field goals. Still, Howell said the team remained upbeat.

“We weren’t down (emotionally) at the half,” Howell said. “We were fired up at the half because we were still in the game.”

That’s when Brown decided to take off the training wheels.

“He’s a quarterback. We’ve gotta turn him loose,” Brown said of the halftime thought process. “We’ve gotta let him go. And he just played a tremendous second half.”

After the break, Howell threw for 151 yards and the pair of touchdowns – one to Corrales, and one to Dyami Brown thanks to a circus catch from the sophomore receiver.

He also managed what teammate Michael Carter called a “Johnny Manziel-type throw” – a third-quarter laser that somehow escaped the grasp of a South Carolina defender and found the hands of a Tar Heel. 

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Howell had to overcome more than a few hard hits to stay on the field, too.

“He got smoked a couple times,” Carter said. “He got up, though. He unzipped his jacket, showed his chest hair, and he grew up.”

Howell did it all at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, just 40 minutes away from his hometown of Monroe, N.C.

“I was just trying to seize the moment, take advantage of this opportunity,” he said. “This is what I dreamed of, being back in my hometown ... It was awesome.”

It was the most colorful Howell got during his interview session. It’s a long season – and remember, the dude is a true first-year – so maybe he’ll open up sometime down the line. For now, though, he’ll let his play do the talking.

“We got a dog,” Carter said of his new quarterback. “And we’re happy to have him.”


@DTHSports |