No position in any sport has more of an impact on the success of its team than the quarterback has in football. That’s what made preparations for this week’s season-opening college games so interesting for teams here in North Carolina.
Virtually every FBS program in the state has gone through a competition to determine its starter under center, with at least one — at Charlotte — apparently going right down to the wire on game day before finally being settled.
While some of those quarterback battles were in name alone, as was the case at East Carolina with semi-incumbents Holton Ahlers and Reid Herring, the uncertainty has only heightened anticipation for what promises to be an unpredictable 2019 season.
The two most closely watched situations were at North Carolina and NC State, where several players with little to no experience fought it out for the starting jobs.
While the Wolfpack’s Dave Doeren opted to hand over the keys of his rebuilt offense to the most known quantity of the bunch, redshirt sophomore Matthew McKay, the Tar Heels’ Mack Brown went the other direction to begin his second act in Chapel Hill by choosing true freshman Sam Howell.
Unlike his Triangle counterparts, Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson had the opposite riddle to solve. Instead of having to choose from a quarterback pool with a combined 39 college snaps to its credit, he had two players — junior Jamie Newman and sophomore Sam Hartman — that combined to lead the Deacons to seven wins and a bowl game a year ago.
It was a similar story at ECU, without the wins. But even though both candidates had starting experience, the outcome of their competition was never really in question because of Ahlers’ size, arm strength and status as a homegrown hero.
At least two teams didn’t have to spend much time worrying about their quarterback situations this summer.
Appalachian State’s new coach, former NC State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, hit the jackpot by inheriting Zac Thomas, the reigning Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, while at Duke, the ultimate quarterback guru David Cutcliffe has Quentin Harris, who filled in admirably last season in relief of first-round NFL Draft pick Daniel Jones.
Here’s a look at all the starting quarterbacks, how they won their jobs and what they bring to the table (that is, until their respective coaches decide it’s time to make a change).
Holton Ahlers, East Carolina
Sophomore, 6-3, 235
Greenville (D.H. Conley HS)
Career Record: 1-4
Career Passing Statistics: 127 of 263, 1,785 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT, 48.0 percentage
Ahlers became the “face of the franchise” the moment he picked ECU over Power 5 suitors Florida, Georgia and NC State. A four-star recruit, the Greenville native whose father is the PA announcer at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium has the look, size and arm strength to lead the Pirates back to respectability after three straight 3-9 seasons under Scottie Montgomery. Although Ahlers got off to a slow start while being used primarily as a runner during the four games Herring started to begin last season, he showed flashes of his talent once he was promoted to the starting job in Week 7 against Central Florida. His most impressive contribution, besides leading the team in rushing, was that he was intercepted just three times while throwing for 12 touchdowns in 263 passing attempts. “He’s like a lightning bolt,” outside receiver Mydreon Vines said. “He’s so fast and he can throw. He’s so smart.” There are still areas in which Ahlers needs to improve, most notably a completion percentage of just 48.3%. But with a better offensive line and a new scheme that puts more emphasis on run-pass options, he could be poised for a breakout season in 2019.
Quentin Harris, Duke
Senior, 6-1, 201
Career Record: 2-0
Career Passing Statistics: 41 of 81, 510 yards, 8 TD, 1 INT, 50.6 completion percentage
Replacing first-round NFL draft pick Daniel Jones is nothing new for Harris. He was called upon to do it several times last season after Jones suffered an injury in the second game against Northwestern. He was forced into two starts — against Baylor and NC Central — and the Blue Devils won both. Harris is a dual-threat quarterback who got plenty of experience while throwing for eight touchdowns and ran for seven more a year ago. The big test now will be to see how he adjusts to the permanent starting role and what kind of leader he becomes. Coach David Cutcliffe, who knows a little something about developing top quarterbacks, doesn’t sound worried about him doing either. “The thing that Quentin Harris didn’t have to do, he didn’t have to become a leader,” Cutcliffe said this summer at the ACC’s Football Kickoff event in Charlotte. “He’s been a leader in our program. If you just heard him speak, you realize what type of young man he is. He speaks volumes of the character in our program. … Quentin is brilliant, just plain and simple brilliant. You can coach him intellectually, you can coach him, he understands what the concepts are and what we’re trying to do.”
Sam Howell, North Carolina
Freshman, 6-1, 225
Monroe (Sun Valley HS)
Career Record: 0-0
Career Passing Statistics: First college season
Howell is one of the crown jewels of coach Mack Brown’s first recruiting class back with the Tar Heels, a consensus four-star prospect who flipped from Florida State shortly after Brown was hired. He’s a pro-style passer who threw for 13,415 yards (the second-most in state history) and 145 touchdowns in his high school career. The 2018 North Carolina Player of the Year has already had a taste of top competition by posting standout performances in both the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas and the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, a game in which he completed 11 of 13 passes for 167 yards and a score while also rushing for a touchdown. He won a three-player battle with Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin, who has since opted to transfer, to become the first true freshman ever to start an opener for UNC. “He’s probably throwing the ball the best right now,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “He does have the ability to run the football, and he’s done an incredible job learning the system.”
Matthew McKay, NC State
Sophomore, 6-4, 215
Raleigh (Wakefield HS)
Career Record: 0-0
Career Passing Statistics: 7 of 8, 38 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT, 87.5 completion percentage
McKay saw only limited action in six games behind Ryan Finley last season, but that was enough to make him the most experienced quarterback on the Wolfpack’s roster this year. That ended up being one of the main determining factors in helping him win the starting job after a three-man competition with Florida State transfer Bailey Hockman and redshirt freshman Devin Leary. “Matt’s accuracy, his leadership, ability to really protect the team with his decision-making and his consistent play really is what prevailed,” coach Dave Doeren said Monday upon announcing his decision. McKay has been described as a mix of the Wolfpack’s two most recent quarterbacks — Finley and Jacoby Brissett, both of whom are in the NFL now. He’s a dual-threat prospect who can stand in the pocket and throw downfield as Finley did, but he can also make things happen on his own when a play breaks down and gain yardage with his legs. He also has a good head on his shoulders, having earned Academic All-ACC honors in each of his three years at State.
Jamie Newman, Wake Forest
Junior, 6-4, 230
Graham (Graham HS)
Career Record: 3-1
Career Passing Statistics: 84 of 141, 1,083 yards, 4 TD, 4 INT, 59.6 completion percentage
Newman was neck-and-neck for the starting job with true freshman Sam Hartman at this time last year before being sidelined by a groin injury. After spending most of the season as a backup, he finally got his opportunity when Hartman got hurt. And he made the most of it. In his first career start, on a Thursday night at NC State, he led the Deacons to a come-from-behind 27-23 win — hitting tight end Jack Freudenthal with a 32-yard touchdown pass with 30 seconds left for the victory. He also helped his team gain postseason eligibility with a rout of Duke in the regular-season finale, then won MVP honors at the Birmingham Bowl by throwing for 328 yards and a touchdown while also rushing for three more scores, including the game-winner with 34 seconds remaining. At 6-foot-4, he is the tallest quarterback in Wake Forest history, and at 230 pounds, he is built solidly enough to be an effective runner with the ability to run over or around defenders. He won the starting job this year by beating out Hartman in preseason camp. “We just felt the overall body of work, Jamie gives us the best opportunity to win,” coach David Clawson said. “But we can certainly win with Sam as well.”
Zac Thomas, Appalachian State
Junior, 6-1, 210
Career Record: 10-1
Career Passing Statistics: 165 of 264, 2,072 yards, 21 TD, 6 INT, 63.0 completion percentage
Thomas had the unenviable task of replacing record-setting passer Taylor Lamb last season, but it took only one game for him to make a name for himself. In his first career start, the dual-threat sophomore led the Mountaineers into overtime before falling just short against nationally-ranked Penn State. It turned out to be Thomas’ only loss as a starter on the way to one of the best seasons in school history. Not only did he account for 2,039 yards and 21 touchdowns through the air while completing 63 percent of his passes, but he also rushed for 504 yards and another 10 scores while becoming the first App State quarterback in 35 years to throw and catch a touchdown pass in the same game. Thomas will have to make some adjustments this season under new coach Eliah Drinkwitz, most notably taking some snaps from under center rather than exclusively in the shotgun. But with 1,000-yard rusher Darrynton Evans and his top two receivers back from last year, he’ll have an abundance of weapons to help him be just as productive.
Chris Reynolds, Charlotte 49ers
Sophomore, 5-10, 192
Mocksville (Davie Co.)
Brett Kean, Charlotte 49ers
Graduate, 6-1, 210
Career Record: 4-2 (Reynolds), 0-0 (Kean)
Career Passing Statistics: Reynolds — 100 of 154, 1,173 yards, 6 TD 2 INT, 65.0 completion percentage; Kean — 40 of 71, 333 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 56.3 completion percentage
Reynolds is the returning starter who played well before getting hurt against Western Kentucky in Week 6. He’s small in stature, but it’s hard to argue with his production while healthy in his first college season. He completed 65 percent of his passes and led the 49ers to a 4-2 start before giving way to Evan Sherriffs for the remainder of the season. Sherriffs, a graduate student, was also in the mix for the starting job heading into preseason camp, but he has since been surpassed by Kean. A graduate transfer from South Florida, Kean (pictured) is more of a traditional pro-style quarterback than Reynolds. He saw action in 16 games over his three seasons with the Bulls, throwing for a 23-yard touchdown on his first college play in 2016 against Towson — a game in which he passed for two scores. New coach Will Healy is playing it close to the vest as to which will start Thursday’s season opener against Gardner-Webb, but chances are both quarterbacks will see action before all is said and done.