CHARLOTTE – Sam Howell said he’s got a lot of thinking and praying to do before making his decision on whether to enter the NFL draft or return for one more season at North Carolina.
But like basketball coach Roy Williams when he kissed the Tar Heel logo on the Smith Center floor after what turned out to be his final game last spring, Howell may have given a hint about his intentions following Thursday’s 38-21 loss to South Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
The junior quarterback lingered on the field at Bank of America Stadium as his teammates headed to the locker room, stopping to look back and gather his thoughts before becoming one of the last UNC players into the tunnel.
“I was just trying to take everything in,” Howell said during a postgame Zoom. “I said a quick prayer and thanked God for everything. Just to be back here in Charlotte, my hometown, to have an opportunity to play in a game like this, I’m just super blessed and super appreciative.”
If Thursday’s game turns out to be his last in Carolina blue, as it’s expected to be, it wasn’t the kind of performance Howell will look back on with nostalgia.
Forced to play catchup after falling behind 18-0 in the first quarter and kept off the field for long stretches by a South Carolina offense that churned out an 18-minute time of possession advantage, he was never able to get into a rhythm while completing only 12 of 20 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown.
The Gamecocks also kept Howell from doing any damage with his legs. Although his rushing stats were skewed by four sacks, he was credited with only three rushing yards on 13 carries after averaging nearly 70 yards per game during the regular season.
The loss dropped the Tar Heels to 6-7 for a season that began with ACC championship hopes and a top 10 national ranking.
Despite the disappointing season and finish, coach Mack Brown had nothing but praise for his star quarterback.
“I brought him up in front of the team and talked about how he’s such a warrior, he’s such a competitor,” Brown said. “Most quarterbacks of his status that are first-round draft choices would not have played today.
“He fought his guts out. We’d obviously love to have him. If not, some pro team is going to be really lucky to get a guy who loves football and competes at the highest level and that I admire so much on and off the field.”
Although it’s likely Howell will forgo his final college season and enter the draft, the Charlotte native – who began and possibly ended his UNC career against South Carolina in his hometown – said he hasn’t made up his mind yet.
“I still have some decisions to make,” he said. “Just know that if this is my last game, I’m forever grateful for everything. It’s been a blessing to be here at Carolina. I’m just so appreciative for all the help along the way.”