Several days before arguably the most anticipated game in recent North Carolina football memory, head coach Mack Brown was already forced to don his thinking cap.
It was August 2019, and after an offseason dominated by questions of who the team should start at quarterback against South Carolina in the opener, Brown finally made up his mind. The Hall of Fame coach decided to hand over the reins to first-year Sam Howell – not only to launch deep fades across the field, but also to become the face of an upstart program that won only five games in the previous two seasons.
Following a fourth quarter comeback against the Gamecocks later that week, perhaps Brown felt some validation. If he was still feeling uneasy, an encore performance in an exuberant Kenan Memorial Stadium just seven days later likely eased all doubt.
Fast forward two seasons, and Howell has checked almost every box for the Tar Heels. He’s helped the team gain national prominence, peaking at No. 5 in the AP poll and finishing the 2020 season with a New Year’s Six bowl appearance. In July, he was named the preseason ACC Player of the Year and is already being discussed as a Heisman candidate, as well as one of the top picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Brown clearly saw something that enabled Howell to become QB1, but even as a notorious optimist, could he have predicted such a quick rise to success?
“I really couldn’t because you just never know,” Brown said. “Sam’s been one of the major reasons we’re a much better football team and a much better football program in year three.”
If there’s a school passing record, Howell's name is likely already tied to it or will be sooner or later. Off the field, he's already taken advantage of the NCAA’s new policy that allows players to profit from their names, images and likenesses, evident in his recent endorsement deal with Bojangles (an almost too-perfect gig for a college kid that has never eaten a hamburger).
Regardless of the hype, Howell's focus has been undeterred. At press conferences, a stoic glance is his preferred look, further demonstrating the “Silent Assassin” moniker he’s been given by some of his teammates. His goal is “keeping the main thing, the main thing,” which is helping his team win football games and compete for its first ACC title since 1980.
“I see all the hype people say, all the expectations, but for me, I just want to be the best player I can be for my team,” Howell said.
Although Howell was the main catalyst for the UNC offense that ranked fifth in yards per game last season, his success can also be attributed to the plethora of weapons he previously had in his arsenal for the past couple seasons. The record-breaking backfield tandem of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter has departed for the NFL, as have top receivers Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.
With several younger players expected to fill in some critical offensive roles, offensive coordinator Phil Longo has made it apparent that he wants his junior quarterback to take charge and feel as comfortable as possible. Last season, they both met early each week to discuss potential game-planning — a trend that is likely to continue this season.
“The (plays) your quarterback is really confident in and runs with a really good rhythm, can run in his sleep, those are the ones we want to lean towards because those are the ones that he's going to have the most confidence in when we're running them in the game,” Longo said. “I just have to make sure that I get them in a place mentally where their feedback is legitimate feedback.”
After winning four of the last six games of the 2020 season and going toe-to-toe with top-five teams in Notre Dame and Texas A&M, UNC has its eyes set on bigger goals. The team currently has the second-highest odds to win the ACC, and if that falls into their favor, could the Tar Heels be talking… college football playoffs?
When it comes to aiming high, even the Silent Assassin can only remain hush-hush for so long.
“I think a lot of people don’t really take it serious when we talk about our national championship goals here at North Carolina, but it’s certainly something that our team and our program believes in,” Howell said. “It’s something that we definitely think is possible for us if we take care of what we’re supposed to take care of.”