Over the years, it has been rare for the North Carolina football team to boast the ACC’s best quarterback.
For every Marquise Williams there has been a Deshaun Watson, for every Mitchell Trubisky there has been a Lamar Jackson, and, for the past two seasons, junior quarterback Sam Howell has been overshadowed by Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.
But that seems due for a change, as on Tuesday, Howell was chosen by the media as the Preseason ACC Player of the Year, collecting 114 of the 146 votes. The next-highest vote earner was Miami quarterback D’Eriq King with 11.
It would be historic for the UNC football program if Howell is able to come away from next season with the award; the last Tar Heel to be named the conference player of the year was Lawrence Taylor, 41 years ago in the 1980 season.
Howell was named ACC Rookie of the Year in 2019 after throwing for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns. By the end of his sophomore season, he had already tied the program’s all-time record for touchdown passes with 68. No ACC quarterback has ever thrown that many touchdowns through their first two seasons, not even Lawrence, who held the previous record with 66.
Two other UNC players joined Howell on the Preseason All-ACC Football Team: junior offensive guard Joshua Ezeudu and sophomore defensive back Tony Grimes.
Ezeudu leads an offensive line that is returning all of its starters from last year. He was named to the All-ACC Third Team last season after starting all ten games he appeared in and playing 657 snaps.
Grimes seems set for a breakout after flashes of greatness last season. Originally a five-star prospect who was ranked as one of the top players in the class of 2021, Grimes reclassified and joined the Tar Heels last season in what would have been his senior year of high school. In the Orange Bowl, Grimes had his best game of the season with three tackles, two pass breakups and a sack.
The ACC media is high on the Tar Heels with its returning starters and rising young stars. In a poll on Monday, they chose UNC to win the ACC Coastal for the first time since 2015. There were no division winners last season after the typically independent Notre Dame joined as a conference member during the pandemic.
UNC also claimed the second-most votes to win the ACC Championship, a feat which hasn’t been accomplished since, again, 1980. Clemson and Florida State are the only two teams to have won the ACC in the past decade, with the Tigers winning the past six championships.
The media expects the status quo to remain next season, with Clemson picking up 125 of the 147 first-place votes. UNC has held its own when the teams have matched up in recent years, however.
Clemson defeated the Tar Heels 45-37 in the 2015 ACC title game. And in their next meeting in 2019, UNC came within inches of besting the Tigers after a late-game two-point conversion attempt fell short, leaving Clemson with a 21-20 victory.
It will be a tall task for UNC to come out on top of the ACC next season, but with all the pieces seemingly falling into place for Mack Brown’s squad, this might be the best chance they’ll have for a while.