Why you haven’t even seen the best of North Carolina’s breakout QB Sam Howell

Sunil Kumar
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Sam Howell is the next Tom Brady.

OK, that’s a bit over the top. But in a time when every great athlete has to be compared to some other greater athlete, North Carolina‘s quarterback has become something of a quarterbacking Rorschach test — compared in some small way to a host of legends — so we might as well start with most indulgent option.

There’s no doubt he looks up to Brady as a role model, but that’s pretty much where the comparison ends. Howell threw for 38 touchdowns and more than 3,600 yards as a true freshman while completely reinvigorating a North Carolina program that had won just five games the previous two years, but that’s nothing compared to Brady. Brady is at the mountaintop, maybe the best there’s ever been. And yeah, there are days when Howell can close his eyes and picture a future in which he is there, too. That’s the goal. But Brady, he’s done it all. Howell has a long way to go.

No comparison. Well, maybe one.

Brady is all ball. He has turned the football savant narrative into a stereotype with all the long hours and sacrifice. He’s a gym rat, a film obsessive — all those cliché labels. That actually fits Howell. Tim Brewster used to waltz into his office long before dawn and start flipping on lights, but there was always one room already gleaming. Howell was in the film room, dressed, feet up, sifting through cut-ups. Practice ended, classes happened, the team endured workouts and lifts and meals, and when receiver Dyami Brown left the building, sure enough, there were two cars left in the lot — Howell’s and his offensive coordinator, Phil Longo’s.

There’s the story Howell’s personal QB coach, Anthony Boone, tells about Boone’s wedding day. His fiancée was off getting her hair done for the big day. Boone was in Chapel Hill, in UNC’s indoor practice facility, throwing balls with Howell.

Longo also points to last year’s bowl prep. It’s Christmas Day. The team wrapped up meetings, but Howell wanted to stick around. The two of them spent another 90 minutes just going over film together. Longo is a football obsessive, too. This was his Christmas gift, courtesy of Howell.

Mack Brown has a better holiday story, though. It’s Valentine’s Day. Brown finds Howell eating lunch at the football facility and stops to make small talk.

“Got big plans for tonight?” Brown asks.

By this point, Howell has reached star status at UNC. He has taken a team that won two games in 2018, and with nearly the same roster, won seven in 2019, even taking defending champion Clemson to the wire.

“Sure, Coach,” Howell says. “It’s with Madden.”

Howell wanted to play some football video games, he told Brown. That was cheaper and, in all likelihood, more fun.

So yeah, Howell is pretty obsessed with his sport, but he’s no Brady. In fact, in his high school days, he got labeled as the short, chubby kid. That’s not entirely fair, either. Howell is a shade under 6-foot-1, maybe 220 pounds. Short and chubby applies only if you happen to be a QB in the same conference with Trevor Lawrence. Still, Howell heard it a lot, even from recruiters.

“Nobody wants a 6-foot quarterback that can’t move,” Howell said. “I’ve been told that by a lot of coaches.”

So Howell set about changing his body — no more sodas and fast food. More work in the weight room on flexibility. He’s not getting taller, but he can get leaner, refine the rough edges.

That’s all paying off, even away from the field. A month after his dateless Valentine’s Day, the world shut down from a pandemic, and Howell set to work on a thankless routine of diet and exercise and football, and — lo and behold — he still met a girl.

See, there’s a little Tom Brady in there.


Sam Howell is the next Drew Brees.

Here is a comparison Howell actually likes. Brees is undersized, but he has a big arm. He’s not a runner, but he can make a play with his legs when he needs to. He had his share of doubters, but he proved them all wrong.

Longo sees it. When he first got into coaching, he studied Joe Tiller’s Purdue teams to learn the offense, and he studied Brees, who ran it to perfection. Fast-forward 25 years, and Longo is coaching the offense at Ole Miss. He sees a kid on the recruiting trail who has that same quick release, the same zip on every pass, the same undersized stature that somehow grows six inches once the ball is snapped.

“I mean, he is just so similar,” Longo said. “Sam’s probably the closest thing to [Brees] that I’ve seen.”

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Sam Howell finds a wide-open Garrett Walston, who dives into the end zone for North Carolina’s first touchdown of the season.

The problem was, Howell was a legit prospect by the time Longo came with an offer, and Ole Miss was dealing with NCAA sanctions. Howell and Longo clicked, but Ole Miss was never going to be the right fit.

Longo was in Charlotte on a recruiting visit when Duke Howell, Sam’s dad, walked him to his car. The pair stood in the parking lot of Sun Valley High School for a half-hour talking ball when Duke delivered the news.

“We love the offense,” Duke Howell said. “If it were somewhere else …”

Longo appreciated the honesty. You don’t win them all, and by that point, Sam Howell had his share of suitors.

Flash back to 2013, when Howell was in eighth grade and his soon-to-be high school coach, Tad Baucom, was pegged as a guest speaker at a local Fellowship of Christian Athletes dinner, where he was seated at the same table with Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. Baucon had his team working as servers for the event, but he let Howell join in, too. He wanted him to meet Swinney.

“Coach,” Baucom said to the clearly impressed Swinney, “the kid’s just in eighth grade.”

A few days later, there was a knock on Baucom’s door at Sun Valley. It was Danny Pearman, Clemson’s tight ends coach. He was there to see Howell, at Swinney’s request.

“He’s not here,” Baucom said. “Didn’t Dabo tell you? He’s at the middle school.”

Pearman looked stunned. He’s really in eighth grade? Swinney hadn’t believed it.

As it turned out, Howell’s first offer actually came a couple of years later from Walt Bell, then the offensive coordinator at Maryland. Bell clicked with the family, and when he landed the OC job at Florida State in 2018, the stars seemed to align.

It was a coup for the Noles, who were in desperate need of a QB upgrade for new head coach Willie Taggart, but the 2018 season was a mess, with Bell’s play-calling role ill-defined and an offense that struggled badly, and Taggart continued to make overtures to some other big-name QBs, too, even after Howell’s commitment. When the season ended, Bell took a job as the head coach at UMass, and Howell de-committed.

While things spiraled downhill at Florida State, everything seemed to coalesce at North Carolina. The Heels hired Mack Brown as head coach that November, and Brown’s staff just so happened to include a half-dozen guys who had recruited Howell, too, including the Tar Heels’ new offensive coordinator, Longo, the guy with the Drew Brees-styled offense that fit Howell like a glove.


Sam Howell is the next Colt McCoy.

This is Mack Brown’s go-to comparison, and it’s personal. Sure, there are some similarities. They’re both cerebral quarterbacks, both ferociously focused on preparation, both team-first leaders. McCoy is involved in a program called “I am Second,” about putting God and others ahead of himself, and Howell loves that idea. He wears a bracelet that reads “I am Second” all the time, and has Baucom send him replacements each time one snaps.

But really, the McCoy comparison might be as much about Brown as it is Howell.

Brown is a Hall of Famer. He won a national title 15 years ago at Texas. He nearly won another with McCoy in 2010. Then the QB pipeline dried up.

This is a sore spot for Brown. A year after playing for a national championship with McCoy, the Longhorns missed a bowl. From 2010 through 2013, they lost 21 games, more than they’d lost in the previous decade combined. And fair or not, the blame fell on Brown and, more specifically, his inability to land the next great Texas QB.

Brown bristles at that notion. He signed some top prospects who didn’t pan out. He missed on Johnny Manziel and Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield, but so did darn near everyone else. But the narrative stuck, and Brown was fired after the 2013 season, banished to the broadcast booth for what appeared to be a cushy retirement gig.

Then, five years later, North Carolina offered him a chance to rebuild a program. The first job? Find a quarterback. There was no doubt who it should be.

“When we came in, he was the best player in the state, so we needed him,” Brown said. “It sent a message that this was going to be the cool place to be.”


Sam Howell is the next Baker Mayfield.

This is the one Howell hears the most. Maybe it’s a bit about the body type, but it’s probably more about the way Howell carries himself. He oozes confidence.

“Kids gravitate to him,” Bell said. “As cliche as it is, if there’s an ‘it,’ it just permeates off of him.”

Watch Howell’s debut performance against South Carolina last year. He was a true freshman starting for a heavy underdog against an SEC foe, and he never blinked. He dinged up his shoulder in the game, and afterward he told his father he was shocked at the sheer number of big and fast defensive linemen who kept coming after him. But during the game, he showed none of that. Instead, he led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to pull off a shocking 24-20 win that set the tone for the new-look Tar Heels.

“The way I carry myself, everyone sees the confidence when you watch me play,” Howell said. “You have to believe in yourself before everyone else is going to believe in you.”

Boone calls it a swagger — “way more swagger than Baker Mayfield,” he says — but it’s not exactly a fair comparison, either. Mayfield was a talker, a showboater, a flag-planter. That’s not Howell. When Howell first got to UNC, he barely uttered a word.

There is one venue where Howell talks smack: video games.

Howell plays against a bunch of other QBs he met on the recruiting trail. He has a running competition with his roommates in Madden, where receiver Emery Simmons said Howell is nothing less than an offensive genius. Even complete strangers risk Howell’s wrath as a gamer. Simmons will hear Howell shouting, then knock on the bedroom door.

“Who are you talking to?” Simmons asks.

Howell looks up from his game console.

“Just messing with some little kid.”

On the field though, there’s no showboating. Howell is all business, and when he first got to UNC, business was not good. The game was fast, the interceptions were frequent. Worse, there was no veteran QB in the locker room to help him along. And yet, he still had some of his trademark of confidence.

“He’s not a hoot-and-holler guy,” Longo said. “He’ll wink at you and nod his head. You just see that smirk on his face. Those are little things he does that speak volumes.”

Before camp opened last fall, Brown invited a handful of the veterans into his office to talk about summer workouts.

“Who’s our QB?” Brown asked, expecting a long list of pros and cons for each of the three players battling for the starting job.

It was Howell, by unanimous vote. The players saw the confidence, and it was infectious.

In that opener against South Carolina, receiver Beau Corrales had been trying to help Howell identify coverages, but on UNC’s final touchdown drive, the Gamecocks switched into man coverage and subbed out a couple of DBs. Corrales saw it immediately and yelled over to his QB. Howell already knew. He looked back at his receiver, gave him a little nod, and boom — a 31-yard completion for a first down.

“He’s not going to have to tell you how good he is,” Boone said. “You’re gonna know.”


Sam Howell is the next Brett Favre.

Baucom, Howell’s high school coach, remembers one play down near the goal line. Pressure comes, and Howell rolls out to his right. He’s near the sideline when Baucom loses sight of the QB. The coach assumes the worst, but next thing he knows, the official signals touchdown. The team celebrates and Baucom never quite figures out what just happened. A day later, he’s watching the All-22 film of the game, and there’s the play — Howell rolling out, a defender draped across him, pinning down his right arm. What does Howell do? Shifts the ball to his left hand and heaves it to a receiver in the end zone.

“We had no idea until the next day,” Baucom said, “because all Sam does is come to the sideline and say, ‘Whoa that was a tough drive.'”

It’s vintage Favre, the gunslinger with so much confidence in his arm — left or right — that no throw is off limits.

Watch Howell play as a freshman. There’s no such thing as a tight window. He’s threading the needle at will, and the more he does it, the more his receivers seem to find ways to make the grab.

“There’s times in practice,” Corrales said, “he’d put balls in places and guys would be like, ‘Damn I can’t believe he just put it there.'”

“There’s no such thing as a 50-50 ball. It’s maybe 90-10.”

UNC QB Sam Howell

Ask Howell about throwing those tight throws, and he’ll stop you cold.

“There’s no such thing as a 50-50 ball,” he interrupts. “It’s maybe 90-10.”

Watch the short, quick delivery, the effortless strength.

“You can’t coach the way he spins the ball,” Baucom said.

It’s not just the arm, though. It’s the toughness. Last year, Howell had a bum shoulder and a sore knee and wonky ankle and yet he refused to sit out practice. Brown insisted Howell stay in the pocket, but the guy kept begging to scramble. Baucom remembers a game at Sun Valley when Howell split his hand open on a helmet after delivering a throw. He called timeout to get stitched up because he didn’t want to miss a play. The next morning, Baucom gets a text from his QB, who’s running late for a film session. “Sorry coach,” the message says, and there’s a picture attached. It’s Howell, sitting at a neighbor’s kitchen table, a needle sticking out of his hand from a do-it-yourself lidocaine injection.

Bell said he was sold on Howell’s toughness during a game his senior season. Sun Valley was playing an option offense that should’ve been an easy win, but Howell and his offense scored too quick on a late fourth-quarter drive, and the opposition managed to score again on the next play, then collected an onside kick. Now the Sun Valley defense is on the field trying to protect a slim lead in the waning moments and in comes Howell.

“The five-star quarterback is playing safety, running the alley, and splattering kids,” Bell said. “It’s maybe the most impressive performance I’ve ever seen from a high school football player.”


Sam Howell isn’t even Sam Howell yet.

That’s the problem with all these comparisons, Howell said. They’re so limiting. What’s the fun of being just like someone else?

Besides, last year was mostly guts and arm talent mixed in with a little luck. Howell was feeling his way through it.

“First thing I said when we got back together in the spring was, ‘There won’t be any sophomore slump,'” Boone said.

Take, for example, all those Favre-like throws into tight windows. They make for good replays on TV, but Boone says he thinks they should’ve been a bit more mundane.

“What people see as a tight throw situationally was him being a young guy and seeing something late,” Boone said. “Now his anticipation is going to be extremely high, and you’ll see balls coming out of his hand on time and less contested.”

Brown said he hated letting Howell run last year. UNC’s QB room was green, and Howell wasn’t always likely to slide and avoid a hit. But Howell’s new slimmer frame has him itching to show off his legs a bit more, too.

And sure, Howell has always been a film junkie, but it’s different now.

“In high school, I just followed the ball,” he said.

Now, he’s like a director in the film room.

“You start looking for specific things and certain tendencies,” Howell said, “and I fell in love with it.”

Howell had mastered a few plays last year, but now Longo can really open up the playbook. Howell was calm under pressure last year, but now, Longo says, Howell is relaxed enough to kick back on a recliner and watch a game while the house burns down around him. Why draw comparisons when Howell hasn’t shown his best yet?

“I believe in all those comparisons,” receiver Dyami Brown said, “but Sam is Sam. He’s a different breed.”

Back in high school, before he had many big-time offers, when coaches were still wary of the short stature and the chunky frame and the small hands, Howell had a talk with former UNC assistant Gunter Brewer that stuck with him.

“Don’t worry about trying to be someone else,” Brewer said. “Be the best version of yourself.”

So, who is the best version of Sam Howell? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to know.

“When you compare yourself to other players, you’re setting a limit for yourself,” Howell said. “I don’t want to limit myself.”



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