When Sam Howell’s teammates and coach Mack Brown were asked to describe him late Saturday night, each spoke highly of the true freshman quarterback.
Howell, who is 6-1, 225 pounds, led UNC to its second come-from-behind victory in as many weeks. Against Miami, he led a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive. And the Tar Heels (2-0, 1-0 ACC Coastal Division) won 28-25 at Kenan Memorial Stadium in their home-opener, which was sold out.
“Oh, that boy cold,” junior linebacker Tomon Fox said Saturday. “He bad. Our offense already hot, but with the addition of Sam, he’s like the fuel to the fire.”
Before Howell arrived, the Tar Heels had beaten only three FBS opponents — Pittsburgh twice and Old Dominion — over the last two years. With Howell at quarterback, they’ve beaten two in the first two weeks of the season. He has helped lead UNC to its first 2-0 start since 2014.
The 75-yard game-winning touchdown drive included a conversion on fourth-and-17. After being sacked on the previous down, Howell found junior wide receiver Rontavius Groves open for a 20-yard pass. Five plays later, Howell threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to junior Dazz Newsome.
Brown said Howell has ice water in his veins.
Howell, when told of his teammate and coach’s comments, laughed it off.
“I just do what I can to help this team win,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Howell has two fourth-quarter comebacks in his first two games, more than some college quarterbacks have in a four-year career.
Last season, the Tar Heels seemed to be in close games each week. They never quit, but their fight wasn’t enough. They lost seven games by 10 points or less. And they were 1-5 in games decided by one touchdown or less.
This season, the Tar Heels have found a way to win them and are 2-0 in those same games.
The Tar Heels emphasized the fourth quarter and finishing games in the spring and summer, and they say that’s a big contributor to why they’re able to win these games.
But perhaps the biggest reason UNC is winning games in the fourth quarter is because it has a quarterback who can make big throws in clutch situations, and isn’t afraid of the moment.
Insert the freshman Howell, who despite being sacked twice on the last drive, still had the poise to finish strong. He was 4-of-5 for 46 yards and the touchdown on that game-winning drive.
“He’s very confident,” Brown said. “The weirdest thing about him is he gets sacked, and he throws a touchdown pass. And you can’t tell the difference in his demeanor.
“He just kept hanging in there.”
That confidence has given his teammates confidence to make plays in the fourth quarter as well. Fox, the junior linebacker, said when the offense got the ball trailing 25-20 with 4:38 left in the game, he and the defense felt confident.
“We believed in them,” Fox said of the offense. “We knew if we put them back on the field, they were going to put some points up for us, and then we could get back out there and get the stop.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
Earlier this week, Brown and UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said they planned to let Howell loose after making some conservative play calls in the game against South Carolina.
The decision to let him loose payed dividends.
On a day when UNC’s rushing attack managed only 100 yards on 35 carries, Howell still played well. He finished Saturday’s game 16-of-24 for 279 yards and two touchdowns.
His first touchdown was a 62-yard pass to sophomore wide receiver Dyami Brown on the first play of his second drive. Howell hit Brown in stride who got behind his defender and ran into the endzone untouched.
Howell’s 62-yard touchdown was the longest touchdown pass since Mitch Trubisky threw a 72-yard touchdown in a game on Nov. 19, 2016 against The Citadel.
Through Howell’s first two games of the season, he is 31-of-48 for 519 yards and four touchdowns. Three of his four touchdowns have come in the fourth quarter.
He also has yet to throw an interception.
By comparison, through the first two games in 2018, UNC’s quarterbacks were a combined 40-of-79 for 371 yards, a touchdown and four interceptions.
“I didn’t know he was that good, I really didn’t,” UNC sophomore running back Javonte Williams said of Howell. “Today, when I saw him make that throw to (Groves), coming across the middle, I was like, yeah, he’s like that.
“Just to be a freshman, the sky is the limit for Sam.”