How Does Sam Howell's Freshman Season Stack Up vs. Heisman Winners, Other Top QBs?

Brant Wilkerson-New

Things are certainly trending in the right direction for the North Carolina program, but there are still plenty of questions to be answered and gaps to be filled for the Tar Heels to become a contender to win the ACC’s Coastal Division and make noise nationally.

One question that Carolina won’t have to answer is the most important in all of college football, though.

With Sam Howell at quarterback, the Tar Heels are in elite company, as they’re set at the game’s single most-important position through at least 2021 and possibly 2022.

When a freshman quarterback bursts onto the scene, it can change the trajectory of a middling program, just as it did for N.C. State with Philip Rivers in 2000 or Robert Griffin III at Baylor in 2008.

Both of those players led their programs to new heights as Rivers rewrote the ACC record books and Griffin finished off his career with a Heisman Trophy.

Neither started their careers as well as Howell, who completed 234 of 388 attempts for 3,347 yards with 35 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The 35 touchdowns are both a Carolina and FBS true-freshman record, while his yardage and touchdown totals were best in the ACC this season.

Rivers was 237 of 441 for 3,054 yards with 25 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. The comparison for Griffin isn’t exact as he’ll make a much bigger impact on the ground, but his freshman year ended with 160 completions on 267 attempts for 2,091 yards with 15 touchdowns and three interceptions, while also rushing for 843 yards and 13 touchdowns.


The point, however, is that once a generational quarterback is in place, it’s much easier to put together the rest of the occasion for a successful career.

Not only do Howell’s passing numbers match and exceed those of Rivers and Griffin, who served as cornerstones for rebuilds, but they also stack up with those of college football legends and Heisman winners.

Carolina coach Mack Brown hasn’t been afraid to compare Howell to Colt McCoy, whose Texas teams went 45-8 from 2006-09 as McCoy was twice named a first-team All-America selection, twice a Heisman Trophy Finalist and twice took home the Walter Camp Award as the nation’s top player.

McCoy took a redshirt as a freshman, sitting behind Vince Young, and as a freshman, completed 217 of 318 pass attempts (68.2 percent) for 2,570 yards with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Comparable in their decision-making, the biggest difference between the two is Howell’s arm strength and supporting cast — something that will be a deciding factor in whether Howell becomes a Heisman candidate by the end of his career.


In terms of pocket-passing quarterbacks to win the Heisman since 2003, Howell tracks comparably with how those five quarterbacks performed in their freshmen seasons, averaging 239 completions on 360 attempts (66.4 percent) for 3,145 yards with 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions.

In their Heisman-winning seasons, the five averaged 288 completions on 425 attempts (67.8 percent) for 4,236 yards with 41 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Perhaps most importantly, though, those teams won an average of 12.6 games.

The chances of Howell to put up award-worthy numbers are high next season, as Carolina figures to return 97.5 percent of its receiving yardage this season with the quarterback playing behind an offensive line that was thrown into the fire this season.

Barring a complete breakdown, Howell will leave Carolina with every passing record of note and perhaps several in the ACC.

Whether that becomes noteworthy on the national stage depends on whether the Tar Heels can win a Coastal Division title.