When North Carolina plays Texas A&M in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 2, it will mark its first appearance in one of college football’s major postseason games since 1950.
But in the estimation of Mack Brown, it’s only the second most important milestone in his second tenure as the Tar Heels’ coach.
The first came just over two years earlier when Sam Howell decided to decommit from Florida State to become the cornerstone of Brown’s rebuilding effort in Chapel Hill.
“(It was) probably the most important thing we’ve done when we were able to flip Sam, being one of if not the top players in this state,” the Hall of Fame coach said during an appearance on ESPN’s National Signing Day show.
“I didn’t even realize it at the time. Being a leader, a quarterback, he comes in, wins the job and then he’s just had an incredible performance for the two years we’ve been here.”
The 6-foot-1, 225-pound Indian Trail native burst onto the scene by putting together one of the best seasons ever by a UNC quarterback. He threw for 3,641 yards and a school-record 38 touchdown passes while earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors and leading the Tar Heels to a resurgent 7-6 record.
It was a performance that led the sports staff of the North State Journal to select him as its choice to be the state’s Player of the Year in 2020.
Howell put together an equally productive sophomore season. After improving his completion percentage to 69.1% and throwing for 3,352 yards with 28 touchdowns while helping UNC reach its lofty heights, he is once again NSJ’s pick to be North Carolina’s Player of the Year for 2021.
With Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence likely to be the No. 1 pick in this season’s NFL Draft and Notre Dame returning to independent status following its one-year dalliance with the ACC, Howell can expect to attract more than just local attention.
He’ll enter his third — and what could be his final — year with the Tar Heels as a legitimate ACC Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy candidate.
It’s a role he said won’t change his approach, either on or off the field.
“I don’t play the game for the attention,” Howell said. “I just love the game and want to be the best player I can be. But I definitely want to be one of those guys in the spotlight. I’ve worked my whole life to get to where I am today and just to have the recognition people are starting to give me. Really, it’s a blessing.”
One of Howell’s most abundant blessings has been the wealth of offensive talent surrounding him this season.
The Tar Heels lead the ACC in total offense at 556.6 yards per game and are second only to national championship contender Clemson in scoring offense at 43 points per game.
Even with top receiver Dyami Brown and 1,000-yard rushers Michael Carter Jr. and Javonte Williams announcing their decision to opt out of the Orange Bowl to begin their draft preparations, Howell will still have plenty of weapons at his disposal in 2021.
It’s a group led by big play receiver Dazz Newsome, who has 182 receptions, 2,367 yards and 17 receiving touchdowns in his collegiate career heading into the Orange Bowl.
“In both of those rooms, in the receiver and the running back room, we have a lot of really good players that really haven’t had a lot of opportunities to play just because the starters have been so good,” Howell said. “So it’s a great opportunity for those guys to step up, and we really don’t know exactly who’s going to be fulfilling those spots. It definitely is exciting for those younger guys to have a chance to compete and show us what they’ve got.”
As for Howell, he’s looking forward to putting up even bigger numbers in 2021. And not just those on the stat sheet as he and the Tar Heels look to continue the upward trend that started when he decided to come to Chapel Hill rather than Tallahassee.
“Sam and I have talked a lot about a legacy for a guy like him, and his legacy will be how many games he wins,” Brown said. “That’s what quarterbacks are remembered for.”