Luke DeCock

No stage too big for UNC quarterback Sam Howell yet

There’s something special about this kid, a true freshman who has somehow saved his best for the final possession in both of the college games he has played. Sam Howell is building a legend, improbable pass by improbable pass, dramatic drive by dramatic drive.

That can’t be taught. It can’t be learned. You either have it or you don’t. There are some really good quarterbacks who don’t quite have the knack for it, and there are some not-so-good quarterbacks who don’t do much until the digits on the clock start getting small. The greats can turn it on at will, of course. It’s what makes them great.

There’s no telling where Howell ends up as a quarterback, but even at this impossibly young and inexperienced juncture in his career, he’s precociously at home in the fourth quarter, playing from behind, when everything is on the line. Apparently, he has been doing it for years, in Monroe at Sun Valley High and now in the ACC.

“My freshman year of high school,” Howell said, “we had a ton of wins like this.”

A week after he led the Tar Heels back from an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat South Carolina in Charlotte, Howell converted a 4th-and-17 -- with no timeouts left -- on North Carolina’s game-winning drive in a 28-25 win over Miami, delivering Mack Brown a victory in his return to Kenan Stadium.

Fifteen years after Connor Barth’s field goal beat Miami under these lights on this field -- to prolong the John Bunting era, as Steve Spurrier tells it -- another North Carolina legend continues to emerge. Barth was even there Saturday night to watch it happen.

There’s something special going on here, and it’s not just the Tar Heels moving to 2-0 in the second Brown era, as impressive as that is. “Mack is back,” the delirious students chanted as they exited the stadium, but it’s one of their own whose late heroics have put North Carolina in this position.

The mood was dire after Howell took back-to-back sacks to push the Tar Heels back across midfield and set up that 4th-and-17. Brown used his final timeout to regroup. At first he sent out the punt team, but reconsidered as a replay review checked to see if Howell had fumbled and sent the offense back out. The Tar Heels were out of timeouts, out of options, down to one longshot, improbable chance.

Howell, buying time, found Toe Groves for 20 yards and a first down.

“After two sacks, I told (offensive coordinator) Phil Longo, ‘I’m not very excited about your 4th-and-17 call,’” Brown said. “Sam found the right guy. He had pressure and he found the right guy. Most young guys would have hit somebody underneath and the game would have been over.”

The Tar Heels never looked back, even after another Howell pass hit Beau Corrales in the hands in the end zone. On second down from the 10-yard line, Howell lofted the ball into the right side of the end zone. Dazz Newsome, diving, pulled the ball in and dragged enough of a foot to kick up some of the rubber on Kenan’s new artificial field.

Two games. Two starts. Two comebacks. That’s a career in the space of eight days.

“That boy cold,” said North Carolina defensive end Tomon Fox, a star on that side of the ball. “He’s bad, you know what I’m saying?”

The afterglow of the season-opening win over South Carolina spilled over into the first quarter as if the Tar Heels had brought it home from Charlotte with them in a take-out container, in front of a Kenan Stadium that was as full as Brown had requested.

That honeymoon lasted about another 20 minutes, as Howell, unleashed, spent the first quarter slinging the ball around and staking the Tar Heels to a 17-3 lead before a combination of factors -- an injury to center Nick Polino and Miami’s defensive line finally awakening, most notably -- stalled North Carolina’s offensive momentum and let the Hurricanes back into the game. They took their first lead with five minutes to go, but that was only to set the stage for Howell, who finished with 274 yards and two touchdown passes.

“Right before that last drive, I told the guys we’ve been here before,” Howell said. “We’ve done it in games. We’ve done it in practice. Let’s do what we do.”

It’s what he does. No stage has been too big for him yet.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.