Back Sam Howell, Superstar

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Sam Howell, Superstar

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Not merely one of college football's rising stars, Howell, entering his sophomore season, is already there.

North Carolina is a regular name in many of the way-too-early pre-season top 25 polls for 2020. Quarterback Sam Howell is a big reason why. Coming to Chapel Hill and earning the starting job under center right away, he promptly led the Tar Heels to wins over South Carolina and Miami and later took defending national champion Clemson to the absolute brink; Howell did all of that in his first month of college football. He helped UNC reach seven wins and a bowl game, with signature performances settling, ultimately, in the record books. 

Along the way, Howell emerged as one of the premier signal callers in all of college football. His career, just now in his first true off-season, is only getting started.

Howell's year one debut truly was historic. He led the ACC with 280.1 passing yards per game and 38 passing touchdowns, beating out Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Wake Forest-turned-Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman, among others, in topping those categories. Notably, Howell completed over 61% of his passes, averaged 8.6 yards per pass attempt and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of better than five-to-one. He recorded six 300-yard games and one 400-yard showcase.

In season one, Howell finished ranked in the national top ten with a passer rating of 160.25.

For point of reference, here is the full list of true freshman quarterbacks who have thrown at least 35 touchdown passes this millennium: ...Howell. 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. 

Immediately, and not long after Howell was playing high school football, he was the offensive centerpiece for a rising contender in his division. Beyond simply not costing North Carolina football games, Howell, even as he was adjusting to the next level, was winning them. Howell finished with the fifth-most completions of ten yards or more in the country with 154, a number only Tajh Boyd, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Winston have bettered in the ACC over the last decade. 

Down the home stretch of his freshman year, Howell was simply as good as it gets. For November, for example, his passer rating improved to 183.95. Howell finished off that month with 401 yards and three touchdowns on 70% passing in North Carolina's 41-10 win over rival North Carolina State. His grand finale was, in some ways, 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.

It is not hyperbole to say that Howell just had one of the best freshman seasons of all-time.

Credit North Carolina head coach Mack Brown, offensive coordinator Phil Longo and the remainder of the staff, along with the Tar Heels' impressive collection of playmakers and consistent front line, for helping Howell accomplish all that he did. The end result was a strong foundation on which to build, a record-setting season, ACC Rookie of the Year and third-team all-league honors, consensus Freshman All-American recognition and a Military Bowl MVP; that, for Howell, is also only the beginning.

North Carolina, with Brown, a College Football Hall of Famer, now settled in back home and talents like Howell on clear display, will be one of the pre-season favorites in the ACC Coastal Division. Some consider the Tar Heels the number one choice. North Carolina has earned its way back onto the big stage and the still-young-and-improving Howell is already one of the game's brightest stars. Get ready for even more from the program and the star player alike. 

A highly-touted prospect out of Waynesville in the western part of the state, Howell came to Chapel Hill and proved worthy of the hype. After a storied local high school career, 13,415 passing yards and 145 touchdowns, 3,621 rushing yards and 60 more scores, his legacy is now expanding on a national scale. Look for Howell to continue to be a leading name this college football off-season, a momentum which will only multiply if the Tar Heels open with more success in 2020. North Carolina's first two games this fall are nationally-televised showdowns with recent powers Central Florida and Auburn. Howell, to date, has thrived in such a spotlight. 

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 against archrival North Carolina State and was a tone-setter in North Carolina's record-setting Military Bowl showing.

Howell plays with confidence and conviction, an attitude that gives the Tar Heels an edge. While his production was for the ages, his perspective was timeless as well.

Simply put, there is a lot to like with Howell. His continued progression will come with extra attention for himself, his team and the entire ACC. Howell, along with the return of several other standouts across the roster, will make North Carolina a talked about team for some time -- and one to watch later this fall. Fresh off one of the most remarkable seasons by a true freshman quarterback in recent memory, it is attention that Howell, and his entire program, has earned. 

Not merely one of college football's rising stars, Howell, entering his sophomore season, is already there. He is one of the top quarterbacks in the entire country. Howell, with a start and style all his own, is ready for more.

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