Photo via Rob Kinnan
While some college football fans watch teams, others might watch specific players. Getting a look at potential NFL players for your favorite NFL team that is rebuilding is a hobby many could partake in. A particular position to get a good look at comes no easier than the captain of the offense itself: the quarterback.
The 2019-20 College Football season had a plethora of experienced quarterbacks, including that of Joe Burrow, Anthony Gordon and Jalen Hurts. In fact, experience was the name of the game for quarterbacks during the 2019-20 season; among the top 10 quarterbacks in passing yards, eight were juniors or older. Furthermore, among all quarterbacks to throw at least 30 touchdowns, 11 out of 16 were juniors or older.
Even with the departure of many of these quarterbacks, the returning crop of quarterbacks for the 2020-21 season will still be loaded with experience. Among returning quarterbacks, the top six in passing yards will be juniors or older. Among returning quarterbacks in touchdowns thrown last season, seven of the eight will be a junior or older.
For NFL fans yearning for their favorite team to get the next franchise quarterback, there will be plenty of experienced arms to choose from. Junior and senior quarterbacks will definitely be aplenty.
However, do not hold yourself to only looking at juniors or seniors. In fact, there is someone who won’t be a junior this upcoming season, but a sophomore. Among returning quarterbacks, that sophomore is the seventh-ranked returning quarterback in passing yards. Additionally, that sophomore is second among returning quarterbacks in touchdowns from last season.
A soon-to-be sophomore. A top-10 returning quarterback in passing yards and touchdowns. A quarterback who started all games his team played in last season. A quarterback who did all of that production as a true freshman.
Even in an upcoming season that will feature Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence (arguably two top-five draft picks in the upcoming NFL Draft), everyone needs to read up on this quarterback in question.
If you are still in suspense, wait no further. Sam Howell, the 19-year-old North Carolina native who currently plays at the University of North Carolina is the quarterback in question.
Let’s start with the basics. After the Tar Heels stumbled to collect only five wins combined over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, Howell, as a true freshman, captained the team to a 7-6 record and netted the program its first bowl win since 2013. Howell made it possible by throwing for 3,641 yards and 38 touchdowns. The 38 touchdowns would be a single season record for any Tar Heel quarterback, surpassing Mitchell Trubisky’s 30 thrown in 2016.
Both the passing yard and touchdown numbers would seventh and second, respectively, in the entire FBS. Additionally, his completion percentage of 61.4% ranked 55th. When comparing his completion percentage to other freshmen quarterbacks, that number ranked fifth, behind USC’s Kedon Slovis (71.9%), Arkansas State’s Layne Hatcher (65.8%), Nevada’s Carson Strong (63.4%) and Oklahoma State’s Spencer Sanders (62.8%). Although a ranking of fifth remains impressive in itself, Hatcher, Strong and Sanders were all redshirts and sat at some point in their college career. When factoring redshirts out of the equation, Howell’s completion percentage as a true freshman ranked behind only Slovis. Even without taking redshirts into account, Howell’s passing attempts of 422 (which ranked 19th in the entire FBS) ranked higher than any of them. This, combined with the numbers already mentioned, emphasized that Howell not only threw often, but effectively to boot.
Whereas other young quarterbacks would generally falter and throw inaccurately, Howell did the exact opposite.
As a true freshman.
What about the team around him? How effective was it in 2019 and how effective could it be in 2020?
During the 2019 season, Howell primarily fed his throws to the duo of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome. Both receivers caught over 1,000 yards (1,034 for Brown and 1,018 for Newsome) and found the end zone frequently (12 touchdowns for Brown and 10 touchdowns for Newsome). Both receivers ranked first and second on the team, respectively. Their third wide receiver in Beau Corrales also caught 575 yards and scored six touchdowns which would both rank third on the team. It does not end there, though; junior running back Michael Carter (despite only catching 154 yards and collecting two receiving touchdowns) rushed for 1,003 yards and proved to be an excellent backfield back to play into the heavy play-action scheme North Carolina implemented for Howell.
So, it has been established the Tar Heels had a multitude of weapons for Howell to play with in 2019. What about 2020? What is there to expect?
Brown, Newsome, Corrales and Carter will all return for the 2020 campaign. Potential injuries aside, Howell will have another year to familiarize and sharpen his craft with the same weapons he went to battle with last season.
What about the protection for Howell and his weapons? Considering he had an excellent true freshman season, his offensive line’s nigh-impregnability had to be the reason, right?
North Carolina’s offensive line in 2019 allowed 37 sacks, which ranked 113th in the FBS. A suspect for the porous protection, however, could be summed up quite easily; inexperience. Among all offensive linemen on the 2019 roster, only two were a junior or higher (Layton Barber was a junior and Nick Polino was a graduate student). Even though both are no longer with the program, the line still has another year of development under their belt. More comfort, confidence and cohesion as a group only looks to benefit Howell even more.
Explosive weapons and an improving offensive line. What else is Howell looking forward to seeing for the upcoming 2020 season?
He gets another year of a developing coaching staff led by coaching legend Mack Brown, who brought in the 19th ranked recruiting class (per 247sports.com) in the most recent recruiting cycle, which was the highest ranked class in the program since 2011 (18th). Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach Phil Longo returns after North Carolina averaged 33.1 points a game last season (tied for 30th in the entire FBS).
As a true freshman, Howell did not just succeed. He excelled. With his team and coaching staff remaining intact, he will be looking to improve even more. While he might not have the experience Lawrence or Fields might have, it will definitely come soon. The talent already has.
So, just remember.
If you have a tough time deciding what college football player to scout on a crisp fall afternoon or evening, remember there is someone worth watching.
That someone is Sam Howell.