With the loss of dynamic playmakers in Dyami Brown, Dazz Newsome, Javonte Williams, and Michael Carter, the questions surrounding North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell entering the season centered around how he will fare with a new supporting cast around him. Things got off to a poor start for Howell and the Tar Heels in Week 1, suffering a 17-10 loss to Virginia Tech. Howell completed just over 50% of his passes for 208 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions against the Hokies. With there being plenty of hype that Howell could be a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy and first quarterback drafted, it was a disappointing night.
The loss to Virginia Tech came on a Friday night. Given that it was the opening week for college football and all the interest in Howell and North Carolina being ranked No. 10 in the country, there was plenty of attention given to the game. Unfortunately, it was a flop of a performance and many wrote off Howell, quickly forgetting the dynamics in play with a new supporting cast.
Fast forward two months and Howell has recaptured some buzz for his performance in Week 10 against Wake Forest, who entered the contest 8-0 and ranked No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
As should have been reasonably expected, Howell hasn’t delivered the same type of production as a passer in 2021 as he did last year. With that said, he has grown significantly in how he’s beating defenses with his legs. Saturday’s performance against Wake Forest was a good example of that.
When not accounting for lost yardage due to sacks, Saturday’s win over Wake Forest marked the fourth consecutive 100-yard rushing performance for Howell and sixth in nine games overall in 2021. Last season, Howell didn’t come close to topping 100 rushing yards in a single game and his season-high came in the Orange Bowl loss to Texas A&M where he gained 47 yards on the ground.
After studying Howell over the summer and writing my preliminary scouting report, I identified Howell had some ability as a runner but this type of production isn’t something I expected.
“Howell is a quick and twitchy enough runner with the football and is competitive with the ball in his hands.”
What’s interesting about Howell’s rushing production this year is that it isn’t simply the result of Howell running past defenders with blazing speed, it’s about his ability to see the field and win after contact. His vision has been impressive and his contact balance has shined. Howell is forcing missed tackles and running with a high level of competitive toughness. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Howell has a squatty build with a low center of gravity and it’s leading to notable yardage after contact.
When projecting that rushing style to the next level, it’s a beneficial new layer to his evaluation that makes him a more appealing prospect. It doesn’t disregard the concerns I have for Howell, but it makes him more intriguing and opens up more opportunities with the playbook for him at the next level.
Through nine games in 2021 and not accounting for lost yardage due to sacks, Howell has 894 rushing yards and eight touchdowns with three regular-season games remaining on the schedule. In his previous two seasons, Howell had a total of 590 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 25 starts.
This newfound layer to his game is an asset to the North Carolina offense and Howell’s draft stock. Should he return for his senior season, it will be exciting to see how his evolution continues and what type of production he can have with his dual-threat skill set with a more familiar supporting cast.