NSJ 2022 Newcomer of the Year: UNC’s Drake Maye proves a worthy replacement

Sam Howell’s Heisman campaign never got off the ground last year, but the Tar Heels’ freshman made a dark horse run this season

UNC quarterback Drake Maye burst on the scene and quickly made Tar Heels fans forget about Sam Howell, breaking records and winning ACC Player of the Year in his first season as starter. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

If Drake Maye didn’t exist, the UNC Athletics marketing department may have had to create him.

Two parts Chip Hilton — the all-American athlete from the 1950s adolescent book series — and one part Andy Griffith — the aw-shucks voice of the state — Maye is Carolina Blue to the core. He’s also our choice for the North State Journal’s 2022 Newcomer of the Year.

The son of a former Tar Heels quarterback and the little brother of one of the heroes of the 2017 basketball national champions, Maye is part of the first family of UNC athletics. His younger brother Beau is currently a walk-on for Hubert Davis’ basketball team.

Maye originally planned on making his own name, committing to Alabama as one of the top high school quarterback prospects in the country. He eventually changed his mind and flipped his commitment to the Tar Heels, saying he “didn’t want to miss out on the home state.”

“Obviously my parents always wanted me to go here,” Maye said of Carolina, “but they kind of tried to let me enjoy the process, but my mom and my dad they’re huge Heels fans so it just kind of worked out, kind of meant to be.”

After a year playing behind Sam Howell, the most accomplished quarterback in UNC history, Maye had the chance to win the starting job this offseason and beat out backup Jacolby Criswell for the job of filling the huge shoes Howell left behind.

Maye was more than up for the task. He threw five touchdown passes on opening day, becoming the first Tar Heel to do that in his starting debut. He threw four more the next week to set a freshman record for most scoring passes in the first two games. He set a team record for passing yards, becoming the first Tar Heel to pass for more than 4,100 yards — breaking the one major passing record Howell never got around to by passing Mitch Trubisky’s 2016 total.

Maye also did something else Howell and Trubisky never accomplished, leading the Tar Heels to an ACC Coastal Division title and an ACC Championship Game showdown with Clemson. Maye was also the Tar Heels’ leading rusher for the season with more than 600 yards. He heads into UNC’s bowl game with 4,115 passing yards, 35 touchdowns against just seven interceptions and 653 rushing yards. He’s already broken most of Howell’s freshman passing records, just needing three Holiday Bowl touchdown throws to catch him in that category. He’s also thrown more touchdown passes than any two other freshman quarterbacks in college football this season.

Maye won five ACC Rookie of the Week Awards this season and six ACC Quarterback of the Week honors. He ended up winning the ACC Rookie and Player of the Year Awards. He’s the first Tar Heel to be named the conference’s top player since Lawrence Taylor in 1980, the first UNC Rookie of the Year since Howell in 2019 and only the second player in ACC history to sweep both awards in the same year, joining Jameis Winston, who did it for Florida State in 2013.

Maye also emerged as a dark horse Heisman candidate, eventually finishing 10th in the voting.

All of that would have given Maye a spot in the hearts of UNC fans for years to come. But what happened next is what made him a Tar Heels legend — a Paul Bunyan in Carolina Blue.

After the Heels finished the regular season with a thud, dropping three straight, including maddening home losses to Georgia Tech and NC State that likely cost Maye a chance to go to New York as a Heisman finalist, the team saw a rash of players head for the portal. A total of 18 Tar Heels eventually filled the transfer portal, and star receiver Josh Downs announced he would opt out from the UNC bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft.

TV talking heads on ESPN and elsewhere speculated on Maye’s future with the Heels, saying he would bring a fortune in NIL money if he looked around. Some of those commentators may have been speaking from inside knowledge, as UNC coach Mack Brown said that other teams were tampering with his players. He spoke of an unnamed player who told him he’d already gotten calls from 15 teams, all of them offering money.

He never mentioned Maye by name, but Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi put a number on it, saying he knew of at least two offers of $5 million or more to Maye.

No one would have blamed him for testing the market, but Maye spoke up and turned down the solicitations, posting on social media “Could never leave this place. I’m a Tar Heel.”

“I’m a Carolina kid,” he told the media. “It means something wearing that Carolina blue. … I love this place.”

2021 Newcomer of the Year

2020 Newcomer of the Year

2019 Newcomer of the Year

2018 Newcomer of the Year