With Sam Howell taking first-team reps for Heels, teammates say QB has work ethic to match "special" talent

Brant Wilkerson-New

With the official-yet-unofficial gag order lifted regarding Carolina’s quarterback competition, the Tar Heels are finally free to talk in more detail regarding the signal caller that’s most likely to take first snap against South Carolina.

Of course, Sam Howell was unofficially-yet-officially named the starter publicly last Sunday when Mack Brown said the freshman would be taking first-team reps moving forward.

It didn’t take long after Howell’s arrival back in January for teammates to realize it was possible that the former blue-chip recruit could become Carolina’s first-ever true freshman to start the first game of the season — a fact dug up by Tar Heel football historian Lee Pace.

“I knew from before, because we’re around the same area, so I already knew what time it was,” safety Myles Dorn said, smiling.

Both of them coming from the Charlotte area, Howell’s legend began as a freshman when he threw for more than 3,500 yards and tossed 35 touchdown passes. Over the rest of the career, he’d continue piling up absurd numbers, finishing with a state-record 17,036 total yards. Third overall in total touchdowns, he’s only behind Chris Leak (213) and Carolina teammate and linebacker Chazz Surratt’s 229.

Still, college football is a different animal where the legends and the record don’t mean anything.

Then, he met with teammates to throw.

“The first time we went to go throw,” receiver Toe Groves said when asked of when he realized Howell could be the starter this season. “I could tell he’s a special guy.”

Dorn has seen a few pretty good quarterbacks in his time at Carolina, from dealing with Mitchell Trubisky in practice to trying to slow down Deshaun Watson, Lamar Jackson and Jacob Fromm, among others.

“Since the first day, you saw his ball come out of his hand and you knew he had a special talent,” he said.

A dual-threat who can also get it done on the run, Howell has developed a reputation — one he embraces — as a gunslinger. Not only does he dare to attempt passes others wouldn’t try, his teammates say he’s completing them, too.

“He can put the ball anywhere, that’s probably the toughest part,” Dorn said. “You can be in good coverage, and it can still be a completion, so I think that’s the biggest part. Accuracy and consistency, he just brings it every day; he can put the ball in places a lot of people can’t.

“As soon as he lines down, he makes his read and he goes with it. He’s not thinking too much, he’s just letting his talent speak for itself.:

Special talent, sure, but that’s also only meaningful to a certain point in college football.

The difference, Howell’s teammates pointed out, is the lengths he goes to get the most out of that talent. As they talked about his game on Thursday, Howell was still in the middle of the indoor practice facility 20 minutes after the end of practice, one of the few players remaining in the building.

“After every practice, he’s still here and every time I’m in here,” Dorn said. “I’ve never been in here while he hasn’t been here. I can come here at 11 o’clock and he’ll be here or he’s just leaving.”

Having gone through a spring practice, training camp and player led workouts, Groves can see the result of that work in Howell’s feel for the game.

“What impresses me the most is his football I.Q.,” he said. “Where the ball needs to go and how the ball needs to get there. He puts guys into positions the way he’s throwing the ball. He’s going to throw you open. He’s athletic, he’s got a strong arm as all three quarterbacks do, but he’s got a really good football I.Q.”

Jordan Tucker, protecting him from right guard, says that while Howell’s “gunslinger” mentality doesn’t match the fiery leadership style of some others who’ve earned that label, he’s certainly willing to speak up when he needs to.

“Sam is about his business, he’s real quiet,” he said. “He’s not going to scream and holler at you, but he’s going to let you know if you need to pick it up, as well as leading himself and the receivers around him.

“I think he’s born with the talent of a QB. I think he’s very athletic, he’s very smart, he makes good decisions and he can place the ball wherever he wants.”

Here's what Howell had to say when he met with reporters early in training camp