Look Ahead — 2020 Player of the Year: Future bright for North Carolina’s Howell

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell had a standout freshman campaign, and he is already being mentioned as a possible Heisman Trophy contender in 2020. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

If there were any questions about Mack Brown’s decision to start a true freshman quarterback in his return to North Carolina this season, it took only four quarters for them to be answered.

Sam Howell made his Hall of Fame coach look like a genius by leading the Tar Heels from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit to a 24-20 win against South Carolina in his college debut on Aug. 31. A week later, he did it again, engineering another late rally to beat Miami and equal his team’s win total from all of the previous year.

And he only got better from there.

The 6-foot-2, 225-point Waynesville native put together one of the best seasons ever by a UNC quarterback — regardless of class — by throwing for 3,347 yards while earning ACC Rookie of the Year Honors. His 35 touchdown passes weren’t just a school record, they were the most ever by an FBS true freshman.

Howell’s passing and leadership were two of the major factors in a Tar Heel turnaround that saw them win six games and earn a trip to Annapolis, Maryland, for a Military Bowl date with Temple.

“He’s had a tremendous season as a freshman,” senior tight end Jake Bargas said. “There are not too many guys who are doing that as a true freshman. It’s pretty remarkable. We’re very proud of him, and he’s done a great job and handled it really well.”

The question now is what does Howell do for an encore?

The sports staff of the North State Journal has selected him as its choice to be the North Carolina Player of the Year in 2020.

Given the experience Howell has gained from playing in 13 games this season, most of which went down to the wire before being decided, along with an improved supporting cast around him, Brown believes the sky’s the limit.

He should know about such things. While at Texas, two of his quarterbacks were Vince Young and Colt McCoy, both of whom ended up in the NFL.

“Sam is very much like Colt McCoy because of his accuracy,” Brown said. “If we give Sam time, he’s really an accurate thrower and he’s that way in practice. I used to sit and watch Colt throw for hours and the ball never hit the ground. That’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to be more consistent catchers and wide receivers because Sam is going to put it there and they’ve just got to catch it.”

As prolific as he already is at throwing the ball, Brown believes there are elements to Howell’s game that have yet to be seen.

Among them is his ability as a runner, something he wasn’t able to show in 2019 because of an injury to backup Jace Ruder — leaving walk-on freshman Vincent Amendola as the only option should Howell have gone down.

“We haven’t run Sam very much, and in this offense, you really need to run your quarterback,” Brown said. “That’s so important on third and fourth down. If it’s not there, he can run for three or four.

“We’ve been more hesitant to do that with him just because of our lack of depth, so that’s hurt us some too, I think. In his future, I think we’ll see him be a much better runner and continue to improve his accuracy.”

Two things he doesn’t need to improve are his poise and maturity. According to his teammates and coaches, Howell already has plenty of both.

“He has great composure, not much bothers him,” Brown said. “The way you all see him is the way we see him every day. You ask him questions and he just answers them.”

A lot of those answers come from countless hours of work in the film room, both with coaches and on his own. It’s a dedication to his craft that bodes well for the future.

“Playing this position is a lot more than what happens on the field,” said Howell, a former four-star prospect who originally committed to Florida State before signing with UNC. “You’ve got to do a lot of film study, a lot of stuff like that to be successful.

“It’s not just about how well you throw the ball, it’s about how well you know the offense. What you know about the defense you are playing. Ever since I got here, I have put a lot of time into watching film, studying our offense, studying the defenses we are going to play. That is going to help a lot.”