Sam Howell’s UNC legacy secure, even if he’s played his final game for the Tar Heels

·4 min read

The enduring image of Sam Howell’s career at North Carolina might not be any of the touchdowns or — in his third and final season — bouncing off tackler after tackler. It might be way back at the beginning, during his freshman year, when the Tar Heels nearly upset Clemson at Kenan Stadium.

Howell walked off the field as the sun started to set, disconsolate in defeat, but with all the promise of his career before him. On that day, after a 21-20 loss to the defending national champions, anything and everything seemed possible.

That game came down to a failed 2-point conversion, when Mack Brown, in his first season back at North Carolina, thought his team had a better chance to win the game on one play than go to overtime.

Friday, at N.C. State in Howell’s final ACC game, the Tar Heels twice kicked field goals rather than give Howell a chance to put the game away himself, and ended up squandering a nine-point lead in the final 152 seconds of a 34-30 loss.

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) dives in to score on 12-yard run during the second half of N.C. State’s 34-30 victory over UNC at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, November 26, 2021.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) dives in to score on 12-yard run during the second half of N.C. State’s 34-30 victory over UNC at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, November 26, 2021.

After running for two touchdowns and throwing for a third, what might have been Howell’s final pass in a UNC uniform, his final Hail Mary into a crowd of bodies in the end zone, landed in the arms of an N.C. State defender.

Howell seems like the kind of player who would be unlikely to skip whatever lower-tier bowl game the 6-6 Tar Heels end up playing in, but even if his NFL stock may have dipped this season, it would probably still be the smart move to sit out.

He’s still one of the top quarterback prospects in the draft, one whose stock could well rise again during the interview and evaluation and combine process — based on his hard-nosed running, perhaps as much as a fullback as a quarterback. His brightest days almost certainly lie ahead.

Howell exits with an individual record of distinction unmatched in UNC history, his decision to flip from Florida State and stay home to play for UNC as much the fulcrum of the Tar Heels’ turnaround in Brown’s return to Chapel Hill as Brown himself.

He has thrown a touchdown pass in every single game he has played for North Carolina, all 36 of them. Only four ACC quarterbacks have accounted for more touchdowns. Only two ACC quarterbacks have thrown for more touchdowns. He went over 10,000 passing yards during Saturday’s game. He owns the UNC record book, breaking records set not only by Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky and T.J. Yates but Choo Choo Justice and Don McCauley.

What was missing was team success. Brown and Howell’s first team won the Military Bowl, with Howell throwing and catching touchdowns. Thanks in part to COVID and Notre Dame, the Tar Heels missed out on a chance to play in the ACC championship game during Howell’s sophomore year, losing to Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl.

North Carolina offensive line coach Stacy Searles congratulates North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell after scoring to put the Tar Heels up 24-14 over N.C State in the third quarter on Friday, November 26, 2021 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.
North Carolina offensive line coach Stacy Searles congratulates North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell after scoring to put the Tar Heels up 24-14 over N.C State in the third quarter on Friday, November 26, 2021 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.

This season was supposed to be the big finish to Howell’s career, with a top-10 preseason ranking, Heisman Trophy talk and an outside chance to force their way into the national title. From the opening game at Virginia Tech, things never went according to plan. The offensive line was a consistent disaster; the defense prone to breakdowns at the worst possible moments. Some of the results were baffling: The Tar Heels got blown out by Georgia Tech, somehow, and suffered crippling late losses at Pittsburgh and N.C. State.

Howell, at least, was metronomically consistent. A subpar performance under siege in Blacksburg knocked him off the Heisman radar, but he evolved under difficult circumstances to be as much a running quarterback as a pocket passer, showing no fear as he invited contact, shed tackles and lowered his head. Saturday, he stiff-armed Drake Thomas -- N.C. State’s best linebacker -- at the line of scrimmage and ran for another 25 yards.

Howell may have one game left at North Carolina; this may have been his last. Only he truly knows. Either way, his record and legacy are firmly established as the most productive quarterback ever to play at UNC. The Tar Heels may have left their fans wanting more; Howell never did.