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Wednesday February 1st

Analysis: How legitimate is Drake Maye's Heisman candidacy?

UNC first-year quarterback Drake Maye (10) seeks an open pass during a home football game at Kenan Stadium against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.
Buy Photos UNC first-year quarterback Drake Maye (10) seeks an open pass during a home football game at Kenan Stadium against Virginia Tech on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022.

The last time a North Carolina football player won or finished runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, gasoline cost 27 cents per gallon and running back Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice was carrying the offense during the 1949 season. But after the early-season brilliance of quarterback Drake Maye, the redshirt first-year signal-caller has a legitimate opportunity to buck that trend.

The Tar Heels entered the 2022 season with few expectations. Following the graduation of star quarterback Sam Howell, it seemed that it would take a long time for an inexperienced young player to adjust to the new role.

But enter Maye, a redshirt first-year from Huntersville, N.C., who just turned 20 this past August. Despite Maye’s lack of experience at the collegiate level, his performance through the first two-thirds of the season has been anything but lacking.

Maye recently became the first first-year in Football Bowl Subdivision history to throw for 30 touchdowns through the first nine games. His 31 touchdowns, however, aren’t just impressive for a first-year player — he leads the nation in touchdowns thrown, ahead of Ohio State quarterback — and potential top NFL Draft pick —  C.J. Stroud, who has 29.

Maye pairs those 31 touchdowns with strong numbers in other key areas. His completion percentage on the season is 71.2 percent and he has thrown for 2,964 yards, with only three interceptions recorded.

Now that he's solidly in the conversation of being one of the nation's top quarterbacks, Maye is stacking up well against seasoned veterans. Three other highly-regarded quarterbacks have caught the attention of fans and media alike, including Stroud, Hendon Hooker of Tennessee, and Alabama’s Bryce Young, the reigning Heisman winner.


Although he may be the youngest and least experienced of the group, Maye’s stats compare well to these three big-time players. 

He leads the group in passing touchdowns and completion percentage, while he has thrown less interceptions than Young and Stroud, who have both thrown four.

However, critics of Maye's Heisman campaign have knocked him for playing in the ACC, which is a conference notoriously regarded for its weak defenses. That fact raises an interesting point — how might Maye’s individual success be measured in a conference whose football programs are commonly knocked as subpar to the rest of the nation?

Through the first nine games of Young’s Heisman campaign last season, the Alabama quarterback's stats were nearly identical to what Maye's look like today. He had thrown 28 touchdowns, passed for 2,755 yards and thrown three interceptions. Their completion rates also were similar, with Young completing 69.4 percent of his passes, slightly below Maye. Alabama had an 8-1 record as well at the time, the same as UNC's up to this point.

The numbers don’t lie — Maye is playing as well as any quarterback in the nation, but the context of this conference is key. Despite the team's impressive record, the weak Coastal Division seems to be harming UNC's resume, as the Tar Heels currently sit at just No. 15 in the College Football Playoff rankings.

However, the Tar Heels will have an opportunity to face stronger conference opponents in the coming weeks. The Tar Heels will face Wake Forest next week, who was ranked for most of the season before falling short against N.C. State last weekend. In the regular season finale, UNC will have its own chance at the Wolfpack, a team that sits at No. 16 in the playoff rankings. 

Currently, Maye is lacking a Heisman-worthy moment. He may get his chance in the ACC Championship game in December, assuming that UNC can clinch the division against Georgia Tech on Nov. 19. If Maye can walk out of Bank of America Stadium with an ACC title win against Clemson, it will be impossible to deny his credibility.

The end of Maye’s 2022 season story remains unwritten, but one thing is clear: with continued play at this level, Maye should be in the discussion for the Heisman. Only time will tell if North Carolina will get its first finalist of the modern era.


@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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