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North Carolina coach Mack Brown isn’t worried about the hype from a Heisman Trophy campaign becoming a distraction for quarterback Sam Howell. Brown was a guest on the Charlotte Observer’s Talking Preps show Monday and covered everything from his use of emojis in text messages to the difficulty of recruiting in a pandemic.
He reserved some of his highest praise for Howell, who has started every game the past two seasons for the Tar Heels. Carolina has begun in earnest touting Howell as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, which Brown said he’s very much behind.
“Some people are worried about Sam, going into his junior year, trying too hard,” Brown said. “He will probably be a top round (NFL) draft choice next year and definitely right now considered a top Heisman candidate. But that he’s not built that way. He’s not going to worry about publicity. He wants to play and he wants to win.”
Howell led the ACC with 30 touchdown passes and 3,586 passing yards, which ranked sixth and fourth nationally, respectively. He’s already tied the school record for career touchdown passes with 68, which is the most through a sophomore year in ACC history. And Howell still has never thrown a fourth-quarter interception.
“Probably the biggest difference I’ve seen in him over the last two years is his ability to lead,” Brown said. “When he walks in a room right now they all turn and look, and that’s who your quarterback needs to be. And he works as hard or harder than anybody on our team, so he can challenge other guys and when he does that the other older guys step up and do the same.”
Q: Is it true, you’ve become really good at texting and using emojis with recruits?
Brown: “You know, when this old guy throws the emojis out, it does throw them off a little bit. They laugh and they enjoy it and they have fun with it.”
Q. A lot has been made of your incoming class of freshmen. 247Sports ranks it 14th nationally, and you’ve said that, as a state, the ‘21 class may be the best collection of talent we’ve seen here in a year. What have you seen from your early enrollees so far?
Brown: “We’ve got 12 of those young recruits in as early enrollees, and (Tuesday) will be the first day that the staff is really going to be able to work with them, but we’ve seen them run, we’ve seen them lift, and they’re really good. And and the other guys that are coming in in May are equally as good, we just haven’t seen them yet. But I think this class is everything that it was hyped up to be....It’s going to be fun to watch them in spring practice. We start March 23. They’re learning what to do now. They they’ve handled the Zoom classes. They’ve handled the COVID workouts. They wear masks while they work out. I’ve been really really impressed with the 12 guys that are here.”
Q. Your thoughts of two Charlotte guys, LB Power Echols (Vance High) and QB Drake Maye (Myers Park).
Brown: “Power is fast. He’s quick. He’s such a hard worker. His dad and mom are athletes, and dad’s a coach so he was raised that way. And everybody knows the May family. Mark (Drake’s dad) was a graduate assistant for me after being a great quarterback here at North Carolina. Luke (Drake’s brother) played (basketball) here. His brother (Cole) played baseball down at Florida. They’re just an athletic family that loves the University of North Carolina and and I can’t wait to see both of them compete for jobs here this spring.”
Q. You’ve coached a Heisman winner at Texas, Vince Young. So you know what a Heisman-type player looks like. So you think UNC QB Sam Howell (Sun Valley High), a rising junior, on that track?
Brown: “I really do. He’s improved so much the first two years and some people are worried about Sam, going into his junior year, trying too hard. He’ll probably be a top round draft choice next year and definitely right now considered a top Heisman candidate. But he’s not built that way. He’s not going to worry about publicity. He wants to play and he wants to win. And he understands the only stat that’s really important for a college football quarterback is winning, and he wants to win all the games and he wants to win the national championship and, and that’s who Sam is. Probably the biggest difference I’ve seen in him over the last two years, is his ability to lead. When he walks in a room right now they all turn around and look.
“And that’s who your quarterback needs to be. And he works as hard or harder than anybody on our team, so he can challenge other guys and when he does that the other older guys step up and do the same. And I think the biggest difference in our football program right now than it was two years ago, is the leadership and the confidence, because these guys are working really, really hard.”
Q. With a QB like Sam, does that drive expectations up?
“The expectations are much higher but that’s what we want,” Brown said. “We want to expect to win every ballgame. And somebody said, ‘Well people got mad when you lost Florida State last year.’ We’re at a point now where people are going to get mad if we ever lose to anybody. But what they’ve got to understand is we’re more mad than they are. And it’s really a disappointment more than being angry, because we expect to win all the games.
“And if you look at the NFL playoffs, they all had great quarterbacks, and the Super Bowl had two of the best ever. If you look at the college football playoffs, in the national championship, they all had great quarterbacks. So, it used to be all about defense and kicking game and you had to control the ball. Now you got to score some points. And we’ve got a quarterback that can do that.”
Q. Your thoughts on the Tar Heels offensive line. The line returns pretty much in tact but allowed 36 sacks.
“We look very closely at why we had those sacks, and some of them were running backs that didn’t protect well enough. Some of them were Sam holding the ball too long. Some of them were a tight end in protection and those guys don’t block as much. Maybe we didn’t get out of the right play. So a lot was attributed to the offensive line and it wasn’t all their fault. So we really really are pleased with those guys there. We need to get more depth. We’d like to rest them some, because we’ve been playing with six or seven we’d like to play with eight to 10. But we’ve got all those guys back next year in the same system, as they’ve been in the last two years....we feel like that the offensive line should be a real strength for us next year.”
Q. And how about the defense?
“We lose another great player from (the Charlotte-area), Chazz Surratt, who who we think will be drafted very high. I’m actually going on NFL Network this weekend just to talk about those those four or five guys that we lose (on offense and defense). Chazz is the only person that we’re losing on defense. Eugene Asante came in as a young linebacker that hadn’t played a lot, and led our team in tackles in the Orange Bowl. So we feel like that with guys that you’re talking about that could backup -- Cedric Gray from Charlotte or Power Echols from Charlotte or RaRa Dilworth. You got Khadry Jackson. You got a lot of guys there that have a chance to step up and play this spring. And we need to get more linebackers to play instead of just the two that we’ve been playing over the last two years.”
Q. How close is UNC to competing with Clemson in the ACC and the Ohio States and Alabama nationally?
“I think we’re getting closer every day. The biggest question mark in my mind has been quality depth. You look at Clemson. They’re two deep, three deep in some places with guys that can play, and then you start beating teams badly enough, everybody gets to play. So your morale is better. You stay healthier because you’ve got top players playing fewer plays, but those backup guys are starting to get so much better, that if a top guy does get hurt, you’ve got someone to fill in, especially on defense. And that’s where the Alabamas and the Clemsons are so good. Now, they’re good on offense and they’ve got speed, but our offense was as good as anybody in the country last year. So we could have played with anybody on offense, by and large, all the time. Right now we probably couldn’t beat those teams every week, but we’re getting closer. And I believe in that saying that you don’t have to be better than a team 10 straight times, you just have to be better the day you play them...
“Our goal is to win the conference championship and go to the playoff and win the national championship and we recruit with that attitude. And we’ve told the players that we want to win the national championship with a team predominantly with high school players from the state of North Carolina. And our footprint is from DC to Atlanta. And we’ve gotten some great out of state players but we want them to be close enough by and large that their, their parents, their friends and their high school coaches can drive and watch the play. And, and that’s just the way we recruit.”