One of the major storylines heading into next college football season will be the rivalry between Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields. Lawrence and Fields grew up just miles apart, and were the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked quarterback prospects coming out of high school. They’ll be the two favorites to win the Heisman trophy and likely be the first two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Beyond Lawrence and Fields, there are seemingly numerous challengers across the country to emerge and compete with those two for best quarterback in college football. By the end of next season, my prediction is that we’ll be talking about North Carolina sophomore Sam Howell in the same breath. In fact, Howell has the potential to be the best quarterback out of any currently in college football.
Howell, a former four-star prospect who decommitted from Florida State, burst onto the scene in his true freshman season of 2019. Howell was the Tar Heels opening game starter, helping revive a program alongside new head coach Mack Brown. Howell would throw for 38 passing touchdowns, an FBS true freshman record. Howell is more than empty passing statistics in an air raid style offense, as the Tar Heels actually ran the football on about 55% of their offensive plays.
Even more impressive than his season long statistics was how in control Howell was immediately upon starting as an 18-year-old freshman. In North Carolina’s first seven games, Howell threw for 20 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Their seven opponents during that span were South Carolina, Miami (FL), Wake Forest, Appalachian State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. During the game against Clemson, Howell played just as well as Trevor Lawrence and the game came down to a failed two-point conversion in the final minute.
Howell proved to have the same type of poise, decision making and arm talent that Lawrence and Fields showed during their initial starting seasons. While Howell isn’t on the same level as an athlete, his pure quarterback traits are strong.
Howell throws with touch and accuracy on his deep balls, doing a masterful job of leading his receivers and dropping it over defenders. His arm strength and trajectory allow him to make bucket throws beyond 50 yards down the field when necessary.
Sam Howell deep balls. Throws with touch and accuracy- does a good job with his trajectory to place the ball over defenders while leading his targets away from coverage pic.twitter.com/zmzuq1PS0N— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) March 29, 2020
While Howell’s ball placement on deep passes is impressive, so is his ability to utilize his arm strength in order to drive the football. Howell can fit a pass into tight or closing windows by putting little trajectory on the ball, threading needles and accurately placing the ball away from pursuing defensive backs. In North Carolina’s game against NC State, Howell let loose a touchdown pass that barely lost any velocity for nearly 30 yards, hitting his receiver in the back of the endzone.
Sam Howell fits it into a closing window with ball placement high and away from the post safety. Talk about zero trajectory... that thing looks like a Pedro Martinez fastball pic.twitter.com/qB1BPlv15M— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) March 29, 2020
Baseline arm strength is necessary for quarterbacks to unlock every dimension of a passing offense, and Howell has more than enough. However, just as important at the collegiate level is being able to anticipate throws as the defense reacts and closes.
Playing in his first game after turning just 19 years old against Appalachian State, Howell showed proper anticipation throughout the game. Howell will release the ball before the route break from wide receivers or before they break into zone windows. This is an advanced trait for a true freshman quarterback.
I really like Sam Howell’s anticipation as a passer— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) March 29, 2020
Rhythm to his footwork, releases before the WR’s route break and the ball is halfway there when he gets his head around. Strong velocity from the far hash. Impressive stuff from a QB who turned 19 just days before this game pic.twitter.com/RX0PplUpA7
One thing that separates most great collegiate passers in recent memory is the ability to elude the pass rush and create. Lawrence, Fields, Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa, Jordan Love, Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and others all have the ability to create time to varying degrees. While Howell isn’t quite the athletic specimen as some of those quarterbacks, he’s elusive and mobile enough to create.
His mechanics while throwing on the run allows him to put necessary zip and touch on the ball without a strong throwing base, and he has the quickness to run away from pressure.
While Sam Howell isn’t a great athlete for the position, he has enough mobility to escape pressure and the arm strength/mechanics to throw without a strong base underneath him pic.twitter.com/veyDWZ4pQJ— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) March 29, 2020
Howell’s quickness and composure in the pocket allows him to navigate pressure in tight spaces as well, while keeping his eyes downfield towards the coverage. In that same game against Appalachian State, Howell broke the tackle from an interior stunt and delivered the ball on a 3rd and long right at the sticks.
Howell is quick enough in tight spaces to navigate the pocket. Never drops his eyes, instantly regains his footing and delivers a fastball to the chest. Poised on a 3rd and long pic.twitter.com/x6lcepXilt— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) March 29, 2020
After two seasons with just five combined wins, North Carolina improved to 7-6 last season in Coach Mack Brown’s first year in charge. The Tar Heels return 10 offensive and seven defensive starters next season, as well as bringing in a top 20 recruiting class. There are obvious reasons for optimism, so much so that North Carolina could be in contention for a top 25 ranking with a few early season wins.
Howell has the talent and supporting cast to continue improving his passing production and eclipse 40 touchdowns next season. If North Carolina puts together more wins, he has the potential to compete for the Heisman Trophy and place himself as the favorite to be a top pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.