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Sam Howell Making, Chasing History

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Year one, for Sam Howell, was one for the ages.

What will Sam Howell do for an encore?

Year one was one for the ages. Maybe even better than that: one that, in some ways, stands alone. Howell finished as the lone true freshman quarterback this millennium with at least 35 touchdown passes. Two redshirt freshmen reached that mark, Sam Bradford and Jameis Winston, both of whom went on to win the Heisman Trophy, play for national championships and become number one overall picks in the NFL Draft; additionally, both Bradford and Winston threw more interceptions than Howell did in those respective years as well.

In a league with Trevor Lawrence and Jamie Newman, it was Howell, even as he was still learning the college transition, who led the ACC with over 280 passing yards per game. Notably, Howell completed over 61% of his passes, averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of more than five-to-one. He recorded six 300-yard games and one 400-yard showcase. Summarizing, Howell finished in the national top ten with a passer rating of 160.25.

Howell was looking downfield early and often, too. His 154 completions of ten yards or more have only been topped by Tajh Boyd, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Jameis Winston in the ACC over the past decade. The confidence has long been there. What happens now that the experience is there, too?

The North Carolina offense is, across the board, one of the nation's best. Elite playmakers are everywhere, talent that has and can accentuate Howell's ability. Two 1,000-yard receivers, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, combined for 123 receptions and 22 touchdowns a year ago. Michael Carter is back after a 1,000-yard rushing season and Javonte Williams returns after over 900. Expect more big plays in coordinator Phil Longo's attack. 

Extra momentum is already in place. Howell threw for 401 yards and three touchdowns on 70% passing in North Carolina's 41-10 win over rival North Carolina State to finish off the regular season. His grand finale was arguably even more impressive; Howell set a new career-high with 73.5% completions, throwing for 294 yards, with three scores and zero interceptions, as the Tar Heels scored the most points of any team in the postseason with 55 against Temple in the Military Bowl. Howell was named game MVP.

Beyond just ability, Howell has a very real moxie to his game.

In his first-ever college contest, Howell rallied the Tar Heels back from a 20-9 fourth quarter deficit against South Carolina. He, for an encore versus Miami, led North Carolina on a game-winning 9-play, 75-yard drive late in the fourth quarter, a span which included a 20-yard strike on a 4th-and-17. Howell famously orchestrated the 16-play, 75-yard march that brought the Tar Heels to within one-point of Clemson near the end of regulation. He also threw five touchdown passes at Virginia Tech, had his most productive game on rivalry week and took home an individual honor in his postseason debut.

Anyway you look at it, it is not hyperbole to say that Howell just had one of the best freshman seasons of all-time. One of college football's leading storylines has to be what, for he and his talented North Carolina team, comes next.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports