In a quarterback class littered with more questions than answers, there’s an excellent chance that North Carolina’s Sam Howell possesses the highest ceiling among the signal-callers. The Indian Trail, North Carolina native rewrote the record books at Chapel Hill by compiling a program all-time high of 10,283 career passing yards throughout a decorated three-year collegiate career. Howell earned the starting job as a true freshman and never looked back.
The highly athletic Howell carries plenty of intrigue as a quarterback with the desired dual-threat skill set that’s largely coveted by today’s offenses. The 21-year-old Howell is the youngest quarterback in the class. The sky’s truly the limit for him. Howell has an excellent chance to be a first-round selection on Thursday.
Howell recently spoke exclusively with The Draft Network regarding why he believes he’s the best quarterback prospect in the class, how a background in baseball made him a better quarterback, his 2021 campaign, his overall mechanics as a drop-back quarterback, and so much more.
JM: You were born in Indian Trail, North Carolina. You were a highly-touted recruit locally and ended up living out your dream for the Tar Heels. What did it feel like to represent the hometown team?
SH: It was awesome. It was a dream come true to be able to stay home and play for North Carolina. The program was struggling at the time and I helped turn things around. We won a lot of football games together. We had a lot of fun doing it.
JM: You immediately became the starting quarterback as a true freshman and you never looked back. You went on to rewrite the record books at the program. What do you think it was about your personality and your skill set that allowed you to contribute from such a young age? It’s such a demanding position, so it’s extra impressive.
SH: I think it was all about the mindset I went in there with. I went in there and didn’t worry too much about what the other quarterbacks were doing. Instead of doing that, I went in with the mindset that I wanted to get better every single day. That’s where I placed my focus. I worked hard to become the best player I can be.
I didn’t try to become the leader as soon as I arrived. I tried to earn the respect of my teammates first and foremost. Through doing that, I was eventually able to start holding guys accountable. I gradually stepped into that leadership role. I would ultimately credit the mentality I stepped onto campus with.
JM: That obviously made a huge difference. You were an all-state baseball player in high school as well. I’m always curious, how did your background in baseball make you a better quarterback? I think there are some intriguing traits that cross over.
SH: I’m glad you ask that because it definitely made me a better quarterback. I played in the infield. I had to get the ball out quickly. You have to work with different arm slots while playing baseball. There are so many different arm slots required when playing baseball and playing in the infield specifically. You gotta’ have quick hands to do it. I think it really translates to playing the quarterback position.
Even as a hitter, people don’t realize how similar hitting in baseball is to playing quarterback from a sequence standpoint. You have to get your hips, hands, and feet involved. There are so many similarities and skills that directly translate from baseball to football, and that gets magnified at quarterback especially.
JM: I think that’s so true. When we turn the tape on, we see an accurate quarterback with terrific arm strength. How would you summarize the way you play the position?
SH: I think I have the arm talent to make any throw on the field. There isn’t a throw that a coach can ask me to make that I’m not capable of making. I’m very confident in my ability to make any throw at any time. There aren’t any athletic limitations to my game. I think I can move well enough to be an asset in the running game with my legs as well. I’ve made a lot of plays with my legs. I can extend broken plays.
I think a part of my game that people don’t really know about yet is my mental awareness, my football IQ. I’ve put so much into studying football and studying defenses. I think that’s something I can really utilize in the NFL. I’m super excited about that.
JM: We’re super excited to witness that come to fruition. You touched on your ability to extend plays with your legs. You’re also an excellent runner. You ran the football essentially twice as many times in 2021 (183) as you did in 2020 (92). Was that always part of the plan entering the season, or were there some mid-season adjustments involved based on the trajectory of North Carolina’s season?
SH: It was not part of the plan going into the season. We were struggling early on. We kinda sat down and looked at what was working for us the first few weeks, and what wasn’t. We decided that me running the ball was something that was working for us on offense. They asked me to do a bit more of that and we ended up making it a big part of our offense. For me personally, I was willing to do whatever it took to help us win games. That’s where it came from.
JM: It’s interesting because it may not have been a part of the plan, but you developed into an outstanding runner with excellent vision and contact balance. You’re obviously super gifted athletically. Today’s game is dominated by athletic quarterbacks that can make things happen with their legs. Do you feel like that gives you a leg up on the competition?
SH: I think it just makes me a better all-around player. I’m able to move around, and perhaps more importantly, I know when to move around. That’s a big part of it. I’m still trying to master that, but I definitely think it’s an asset that improves my game. It gives me another weapon to use.
JM: The 2021 season welcomed some challenges. I want to talk about what it was like to lose guys like Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dazz Newsome, and Dyami Brown. There must have been an acclimation period involved. All four of those players are NFL talents.
SH: It was definitely difficult. It obviously made things different for us offensively. I think the main thing for me was that I needed to step up and take on a bigger leadership role throughout our offseason. I made sure I tried to get our younger guys up to speed and to the point where we needed them to be in order for them to play successfully.
I spent so much time with those guys leading up to the season. We went into the season and unfortunately we didn’t have the success we wanted to offensively. We struggled with finding our identity on offense and we tried different things out all year long instead of knowing who we really were.
That’s the struggle we went through all year long honestly. We just never really clicked. We would click for a game and we thought we had things figured out, but then we’d struggle the next game. It was an up and down year for us.
For me, I wouldn’t change that experience for the world. I think I learned so much about myself. I came out on the other side as a better player than I was when I went into it. I really wouldn’t trade it for anything.
JM: It was certainly an experience that made you stronger. Making throws outside of structure is all the rage. We watch quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen do it on a weekly basis. How do you feel about your ability to make plays outside of structure?
SH: I take a lot of pride in that part of my game. People don’t realize how important being able to do stuff like that really is, especially in today’s game. That’s something I love working on. It’s something I take a lot of pride in doing. Whenever I get outside of the pocket, my first thought is to keep my eyes down the field and see if I can make a throw for our offense outside of structure. That’s going to continue to be my thought process when I leave the pocket at the next level. I definitely take a lot of pride in that part of my game.
JM: You’ve trained with Anthony Boone throughout this process. Coach Boone actually played collegiately for the great David Cutliffe at Duke. How has coach Boone helped you elevate your game?
SH: He’s helped me tremendously. I’ve been training with him for a long time actually. He’s just helped me develop every single part of my game, mentally and athletically as well. He’s always been there for me. He’s been a terrific resource for me throughout my high school and college careers.
He helped me with the transition from high school to college. He’s been a big part of this pre-draft process as well. He’s an incredible teacher. He communicates well and he understands how to get the most out of me. We work really, really well together. He’s an awesome guy. He’s in it completely for me. He’s not in it for himself. He’s a rare human being. There aren’t a lot of people like him.
JM: He sounds like a terrific person and coach. Your pre-draft training and prep for the NFL Scouting Combine didn’t stop there. You did some further preparation for the combine with the team over at Sanford Power in Irvine, California. How did they help get you ready for the combine?
SH: They helped me a bunch. Those guys are awesome. I was super excited to get out there and work with those guys. They did a really great job. They have all the resources you can imagine at their disposal. The guys working with me did a great job getting me ready to go. I was blessed to work with so many amazing trainers throughout this entire process.
JM: This is a question I really like asking quarterbacks. What is Sam Howell’s “Why?” I’m looking for what fuels you and what drives your passion for the game. People play the game for different reasons.
SH: I play the game for God first and foremost. I give all my glory to God. That’s something that’s really important to me. What really drives me is that I want to be the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. That’s really what drives me each and every day.
Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been dreaming about being the greatest quarterback of all time. I wake up every single day and try to do every single thing I can to make that dream a reality. I’m hoping I’ll continue to shape that dream going forward.
JM: What sort of responsibilities did you have at the line of scrimmage at North Carolina?
SH: I had a lot on my plate. We did so many different things throughout my time there. We had some double play calls. That means we had two play calls and I had to decide the best play call for us once we got to the line of scrimmage and recognized some things pre-snap. We would call certain plays where if we didn’t like the look we were getting from the defense, it was my job to check out of that and get us into something more appropriate for what we were seeing. We had some occasions where we’d get to the line before calling a play, take a look at what we were getting and I would call the play for us at that point in time. We did all types of stuff. It really just depended on the play call.
JM: What goes into your film study? What are some of the things you look for throughout the course of a game-prepping week?
SH: There’s so much that goes into that. I can talk your ear off. I think the big things are the tendencies. I really dive deep into the tendencies. Knowing when it’s second-and-7, where the ball is on the field, what quarter it is, how much time is left in the quarter, and on the play clock. I can go on and on. I try to pick up every tendency I can from the defense so we know what to expect. I think if you’re expecting something, you can jump on it a lot faster as opposed to seeing something and having to react to it. Tendencies come first and foremost.
I love diving deep into personnel. Matchups are really important to me. I might identify something I want to attack that weekend. I try to identify those matchups throughout our upcoming game plan. How to get those matchups is equally as important. I think tendencies and matchups are huge. You try to find those keys in coverage. You try to find that one guy in coverage that’s going to give you what you’re looking for.
That guy can change every week, of course. Some teams do a really good job at disguising, but a lot of times, there’s one guy that isn’t as good at disguising as his teammates are. You try to find that guy and learn what you can from him. My film study is all about answering as many questions as I can before we even snap the football. It’s all a credit to the preparation.
JM: You’re obviously someone that takes film study extremely seriously. How do you balance being aggressive with taking the safe play?
SH: You just have to get a good feel for that. That can only happen with reps and through playing the position. You have to communicate with your offensive coordinator. You have to understand what the game plan is. All of those things give me a really good feel for the situation. You have to know when it’s right. You have to understand the flow of the game. Are we moving the ball well? Do I even need to take a shot here? Or if we have a lot of momentum, maybe it’s a good time to take a shot. You gotta do a really good job getting into the flow of a game.
I think the main thing is just knowing the situation. You have to know what the best play is. I think for me personally, I have a lot of confidence in my arm. If there’s somebody open down the field, it doesn’t matter the situation. I’m going to take that shot every single time. That’s how I play the game.
JM: I loved watching you do that on film. What do you feel is the best game you ever played in a North Carolina jersey?
SH: That’s a great question. I’d probably say at Virginia Tech in 2020, or at Wake Forest in 2020. I’d probably go with Wake Forest. That’s the best game I ever played. I made a lot of really big throws.
We had a lot of success on the offensive side of the ball. I scored on a quarterback draw at the end of the game to win it. I think I had seven total touchdowns. I threw a touchdown to five or six different players. We spread the ball around. It was a lot of fun out there.
JM: That was a huge game for you. If you could pick the brain of any quarterback in today’s game, who would you choose and why?
SH: I’d definitely have to go with Tom Brady. Without a doubt. It speaks for itself. He’s an unbelievable quarterback. He’s the greatest of all time. He’s been doing it for such a long time. He’s gone through so many different things. He’s helped his teammates so much. He gives great advice. I would definitely pick Tom Brady.
JM: I’ve really appreciated your time today. I feel like this conversation has highlighted why Sam Howell has a chance to develop into the best quarterback in the 2022 NFL Draft. In closing, why should a team use a first-round selection on Sam Howell on Thursday?
SH: I think my film over the past three seasons speaks for itself. I’ve put those things on tape. My ability to be accurate on every throw and throughout every situation is a huge asset. I’d single out my ability to throw the ball down the field, my ability to stretch the field. I think all of that speaks for itself.
I think my ability to come into a program that was struggling like North Carolina was at the time, and I brought new energy and success to the program. I set a new standard for our team. I got those guys back to having fun again. I got us back to a winning culture. I take a lot of pride in being able to change a culture while bringing a lot of energy to a team. I’m able to lead a team and rally a group of guys. I think that’s my biggest strength.