When Sam Howell is asked about the first time he met teammate, Antonio Williams, he cracks a slight smile.
It was a September night in 2015, and Sun Valley High School was hosting North Stanly in a high school football game.
“Oh, I remember that game,” Howell says jokingly.
Back then, Williams was a highly touted senior running back at North Stanly who was heading to Ohio State. Howell was a 5-10, 190-pound freshman quarterback for Sun Valley who hadn’t yet made a name for himself.
But that night, in what was only the second game of his high school freshman season, Howell did.
Williams rushed for 361 yards and four touchdowns. Howell had 391 passing yards and four touchdowns in the 63-38 Sun Valley win.
“He (was) just throwing the ball all over the field, and they beat us,” Williams recalled to the media this past Tuesday. “From that point on, I knew he was going to be legit.”
Four years later, Williams and Howell are UNC teammates. Williams is a senior running back who transferred to UNC in 2018. Howell is a 6-1, 225-pound freshman quarterback. On Saturday, Howell will become the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener in UNC program history when the Tar Heels face South Carolina at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium in the Belk College Kickoff.
In recent years, the Tar Heels have struggled due to multiple injuries and their lack of having a quarterback who can consistently throw the ball deep down field. Last season, UNC cycled through four different quarterbacks.
The Tar Heels threw 14 passing touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 2018. Those 14 touchdowns were ranked 106th in the country out of 129 FBS teams.
Howell’s teammates and coaches hope he can help change that.
It’s a big moment for a young player. But those who know Howell best say he was built for this.
“There’s never been a moment in his life that’s been too big for him,” Sun Valley High School assistant football coach Zach Bevilacqua told the N&O on Thursday.
Howell started all four years at Sun Valley High School in Monroe, about 20 miles southeast of Charlotte, setting state records along the way. The four-star quarterback holds the state high school record for most yards in a career with 17,036. He is second all-time in passing yards with 13,055, behind former Independence and Florida Gators star Chris Leak. Coming out of high school, he was the No. 2 quarterback in the state, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.
Howell did that by outworking everyone. When some kids his age were sleeping, Howell was either working out or watching film. After practices and games, and during his free time, he’d watch film at home with his dad, Duke Howell, who was his offensive coordinator at Sun Valley.
Duke Howell told the N&O Monday he could sense his son was going to be special when he was young. But in high school his son surpassed expectations.
“He’s a different kid,” Duke Howell said.
A family of athletes
Howell is the youngest of three.
His older brother played football and his older sister played softball in high school. His father wrestled at Appalachian State, and his mother played volleyball there.
As a child, Howell was bigger than most his age. In football and baseball he always played one or two age groups up and was still better than whoever he played against. When he was in the third grade, he was the starting quarterback for the fifth grade team and led his team to the Union County championship, Duke Howell said.
Duke Howell says “competitive” is the best way to describe his youngest son.
As a high school freshman, Howell threw for 3,586 yards, 35 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. He also ran for seven touchdowns.
Tad Baucom, Howell’s coach at Sun Valley, said he and the staff would tell Howell to get down when he was being stopped. If Howell didn’t hear the whistle, and the defender didn’t bring him all the way down, he’d keep his feet moving.
“He’s just got that will to be successful and will to win and that drive to not go down,” Baucom told the N&O Thursday. “That’s OK if you a running back, not if you’re a four-star quarterback.”
Baucom said there was game where Howell stiff armed a defender so hard, he cut his thumb open and blood came gushing out.
The trainer slowed the bleeding and taped his thumb mid-game, and Howell returned one play later, helping Sun Valley win. The next morning Howell got 10 stitches in his thumb and returned to practice.
“It was crazy,” Baucom said, recalling the game.
A goal to be the UNC starter
Howell has always been on a mission.
When he was in high school, his goal was to play for a Power-5 school. He did that. When he got to UNC, his goal was to be the starter. He did that too. One day he wants to play in the NFL.
To achieve those goals, Howell had to put in the work. So he did.
Gavin Blackwell, a wide receiver for Sun Valley, saw Howell’s hard work up close. The two friends hung out and worked out in the summers together.
Blackwell said one summer he and some teammates went on vacation to Surfside Beach in South Carolina. Instead of relaxing, Howell wanted to work out. Howell woke his teammates at 5 a.m. so they could all go for a three-mile run along the pier.
That was typical of Howell, Blackwell said.
“He’s not going to let anyone be better than him,” Blackwell told the N&O in a phone interview on Tuesday. “It’s unbelievable just being around it.”
Amy Howell, Sam’s mother, said her son has always been competitive. He’d watch his brother’s baseball games and sister’s softball games and wanted to get out there himself.
In the backyard of their family home, Sam and his brother, Will, would pitch to each other, and play a game. Instead of using a baseball, they would use a volleyball so they wouldn’t break their neighbor’s window. A fence surrounds the backyard. The rules were: “if you hit it over the back fence or into the pool it’s a home run. If you hit it into the tree, keep running until it falls from the tree.”
Even those games were competitive.
“He’s always been that way,” Amy Howell told the N&O on Friday. “Growing up and being the youngest of three, he was always the little brother. Seeing what he’s doing now, it’s hard to even imagine that.”
A three sport athlete at Sun Valley
The old Sun Valley High School football field is now half a bus parking lot and half a dirt field. On a recent school day, a dump truck and an excavator moved dirt where the end zone and scoreboard used to be.
It was here that Howell helped break all those records.
Howell was a two-sport athlete at Sun Valley. Along with football, he was a standout baseball player. But there’s a running joke among the coaches at Sun Valley that Howell actually played three sports.
That’s half true.
During Howell’s junior year at Sun Valley, the basketball team was down a couple of players who were injured. So Keith Mason, the basketball coach, asked for the star quarterback’s help for two weeks.
In Howell’s first game against Parkwood, he entered the game in the fourth quarter. He came up with a steal at the opponents’ basket near the free throw line, turned around and launched a one-handed baseball pass to his teammate on the opposite end of the court. His teammate caught it in full stride and dunked it on the other end.
“I mean right on the money,” Mason recalled with a laugh in an N&O interview Thursday. “He was the type of athlete that he could play whatever sport he wanted.”
Baseball was his first love, but football became Howell’s passion. He started playing flag football when he was in first grade and excelled at it.
“I’ve always played quarterback and it’s just something different,” Howell said. “Even from first grade, I was in love with it.”
Sam Howell’s moment
Howell, who was a four-star prospect and top-100 player nationally, initially committed to Florida State. But he changed his commitment and signed with UNC shortly after Mack Brown was hired.
He wanted to be closer to home after his father had triple bypass surgery in December.
Howell’s goal after enrolling at UNC in December was to win the quarterback battle against redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder. Ultimately, he won out. UNC coach Mack Brown said on Monday that Howell had just been a little more consistent than the other two quarterbacks.
“He works so hard,” Brown told the media Monday in a press conference. “He’s in the office every day, he’s watching video by himself every day. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a guy work harder than Sam Howell has, just to get himself ready.”
Howell also said he wants to help change the culture of UNC’s football program, which has struggled to win in recent years. UNC went a combined 5-18 in 2017 and 2018. Only three of those wins had come against FBS opponents.
Howell at 6-1, 225 pounds, is quiet, but built like a defensive player.
He’s confident, but humble.
When asked which receivers are standing out in practice, he names off all of them.
“Really, I feel comfortable with whatever receivers we have out there,” Howell said.
When Howell plays on Saturday against South Carolina, he’ll be returning home and playing in a stadium he has always dreamed of playing in. He’ll have his family, high school coaches, teammates and former classmates in the stands watching his moment.
They say he was built for this.
UNC vs. South Carolina
When: 3:30 p.m., Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
Listen: WTKK-106.1 Raleigh; WCHL-97.9, WCHL-1360 Chapel Hill; WBT-99.3, WBT-1110 Charlotte