With Sam Howell at quarterback, UNC’s chances at getting to a bowl game are in reach

After six games this season, it’s hard to fathom that Sam Howell was in a three-way tie to be North Carolina’s starting quarterback two weeks before its season-opener.

Howell has been quite impressive this season. He has 16 total touchdowns (15 passing, one rushing) through six games this year, and after a 38-22 win against Georgia Tech on Saturday, the Tar Heels are 3-3 entering their bye week.

A lot of that is credit to Howell, who despite being a freshman quarterback, has often looked like a veteran. Saturday’s game was no exception.

He threw an interception in the first quarter, then shook it off before throwing a career-high four touchdowns.

“I’m definitely pleased with how we played on the offensive side of the ball,” Howell said. “But there’s still so many points we left out there. Some of that, I made some bad throws in the game. Throws I usually make.”

Howell is being modest. Along with his career-high in touchdowns, he also passed for a career-high 376 yards, and had a career-high 33 completions. The Tar Heels also added 211 rushing yards to go along with it.

The Yellow Jackets didn’t have an answer for Howell and the Tar Heels’ offense.

When asked was this Howell’s best performance of the season, UNC coach Mack Brown said he thought so.

“We’ll study it and see, but he’s got so much composure,” Brown said. “He didn’t get a lot of help sometimes from his receivers, and they got better as the game went on.”

UNC’s receivers had six drops on Saturday, four of which occurred in the first quarter.

“We catch all them balls, that’s another 200 yards,” UNC junior wide receiver Dazz Newsome said.

North Carolina’s Dazz Newsome (5) scores on a 20 yard pass completion from quarterback Sam Howell ahead of Georgia TEch’s Juanyeh Thomas (1) to give the Tar Heels a 10-0 lead in the second quarter on Saturday, October 5, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Newsome said after the drops, Howell told his receivers that he would come back to them. And he did.

His first touchdown was a laser pass to Newsome on a slant route, who race into the endzone for a 20-yard score. His second was a six-yard pass to junior Beau Corrales on a fade route. His third was an 18-yard pass to Dyami Brown, which was placed only where Brown could get it. And the fourth was a pass to tight end Garrett Walston, who was able to run into the endzone for a score.

North Carolina Garrett Walston (84) scores on a 16 yard pass completion from quarterback Sam Howell ahead of Georgia Tech’s Tariq Carpenter (2) to give the Tar Heels a 31-15 lead in the fourth quarter on Saturday, October 5, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

In all, Howell threw passes to eight different receivers. Five receivers had at least 47 yards, and four caught a touchdown. The Tar Heels were 11 for 19 on third down conversions.

When Howell got to UNC in January, he was highly touted coming out of high school. He set the North Carolina high school record for most yards in a career.

But it was unclear of whether he could do the same in college.

However, Howell has surpassed expectations and continued to get better as the season has progressed. In his first three games, Howell had six touchdown passes. In his last three games, he has nine touchdown passes, and two 300-plus yard passing games.

“We said it since day one, ‘Sam is a baller,’” UNC junior wide receiver Beau Corrales said. “Everybody on the team has faith in him, and it’s obvious he has faith in himself.”

The Tar Heels had talent in 2018. However, they were only going to go as far as their quarterbacks would take them. And their quarterbacks didn’t take them very far. In 2018, the Tar Heels threw 14 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, and finished the season 2-9.

But this season, they’ve got a quarterback, and it’s made a huge difference.

Brown said Howell is good because he’s confident in his ability.

“And he’s also a gym rat,” Brown said. “So he studies and he knows exactly where things are. Sometimes to a problem that he overthinks sometimes. But he’s got really good confidence and they believe in him.”

The Tar Heels have six games remaining on their schedule, and need three wins to make it to a bowl game. But they have higher aspirations. They want to win the Coastal Division. If they were to win the rest of their games, they will win it, setting up a potential rematch with Clemson.

And Howell makes that possible.

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Jonathan M. Alexander has been covering the North Carolina Tar Heels since May 2018. He previously covered Duke basketball and recruiting in the ACC. He is an alumnus of N.C. Central University.
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