2021 UNC Football Positional Preview: Quarterback

CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 12: Sam Howell #7 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drops back to pass against the Syracuse Orange during their game at Kenan Stadium on September 12, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - SEPTEMBER 12: Sam Howell #7 of the North Carolina Tar Heels drops back to pass against the Syracuse Orange during their game at Kenan Stadium on September 12, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) /

We are just under a month away from kickoff as the UNC Football program opens up what is a much-anticipated 2021 season at Virginia Tech. With UNC coming off an Orange Bowl appearance last season, many expect Mack Brown and his team to take that next step and be a legit contender to Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

And front and center with those high expectations is quarterback Sam Howell.

The former four-star recruit is entering his third season with the program and does so with Heisman aspirations. Howell has been fantastic for the Tar Heels since flipping his commitment from Florida State to North Carolina on National Signing Day, putting together two impressive seasons already and has started from Day 1.

Howell will lead the charge again this year at the position and with the countdown till Week 1 ongoing, it’s time to start our previews with the quarterback position.


We do know that Howell will be lined up under center for that Friday night showdown against Virginia Tech. However, while there is some depth behind Howell it’s unclear who will be the second quarterback on the depth chart.

Behind Howell the Tar Heels have sophomore Jacolby Criswell and true freshman Drake Maye battling it out for QB2 duties. And while that may not seem important, it is in terms of who gets reps in games that are not close and who is next in line to take over for Howell after this season.

With training camp already started, the Tar Heels are currently going through their evaluations of both Maye and Criswell. And as offensive coordinator Phil Longo told the media, there’s no clear answer just yet and they aren’t in a rush per Inside Carolina:

"“We have enough reps for three quarterbacks right now,” Longo said. “They’re going decide that, I don’t really have to decide that. Obviously, the boss is going to sign off on it, right? But we want to sit back and let them go play. They will decide that based on their production and their consistency. I would say that big plays are not as important as the consistency. The consistency, the every down focus, and the every-down consistent execution will separate one from the other, and then hopefully they bring the big plays with them.”"

Writing this, there is still a long ways to go in training camp and preparation so it’s likely UNC won’t have their backup quarterback decided until close to game week. But this still a storyline that we should follow moving forward.


Sam Howell

As mentioned above Howell is returning for this third season with the Tar Heels and he’s gotten better each year. As a freshman, Howell bursted onto the national scene and helped the Tar Heels turn things around by not only getting to a bowl game but winning one.

Last season, UNC improved on that finishing third in the conference and making the Orange Bowl at the end of the year. Despite losing most of his top talent, Howell was still fantastic in that bowl game and almost helped UNC pull off the upset.

This year it’s boom or bust for Howell and the Tar Heels. This will likely be Howell’s final season in Chapel Hill, as he’s considered one of the top quarterback prospect for the 2022 NFL Draft and would be smart to pounce on the opportunity. We should see Howell in the race for the Heisman all season long with a legit shot to win it, especially if the Tar Heels take that step forward and are a college football contender.

Expect a big year from #7 this year in Chapel Hill..

2020 stats: 3,586 passing yards, 68.1 completion percentage, 30 touchdowns, 7 INT, 179.1 passer rating.

Jacolby Criswell

The former four-star recruit saw limited action in his true freshman season in Chapel Hill, winning the No. 2 job after Jace Ruder opted to transfer from the program. Serving as Howell’s backup, Criswell has been able to watch the quarterback and take away some tendencies that he may have. Getting experience is valuable but being able to pick up things from a player of Howell’s caliber is also very important.

While battling Maye, Criswell may have the upperhand in the sense that he does know the playbook a little better and has that one season. However, this battle may come down to true talent which is also something that Criswell has to his disposal.

2020 stats: 16 passing yards, 75 completion percentage, 0 touchdowns, 1 INT, 58.6 passer rating.

Drake Maye

After decommitting from Alabama, Maye didn’t wait long to pledge his commitment to North Carolina and follow in the footsteps of his father Mark and brother Luke. He enters this year as one of the top  recruits in UNC’s 2021 class and is considered the future of the program once Howell leaves.

But first, Maye has to beat out Criswell for the No. 2 job to earn some extra reps. He will certainly be someone to keep an eye on during training camp and the regular season as he will be a big part of what UNC wants to do in the next few years.

2020 stats: N/A


The focus is all on Howell and his potential Heisman season as fans hope he can lead them to an ACC coastal division title and potentially as a dark horse in the College Football Playoff. As Sam goes, so will this team as it’s all on his shoulders.

One thing to monitor for Howell is how he does without four of his top targets from last season in Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown. Yes, UNC does return some talent on offense but that is a lot of production to replace.

Howell’s continued development will also be something to watch. Currently ranked as the No. 2 QB prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft, Howell has the chance to improve his stock. And with a full season scheduled, he’s going to not only have to show consistency but take a few leaps in his game, including making more throws all over the field.

With all eyes on Howell this year, it would be a disappointment to see him regress. The expectations are high for him and this team. Coming out strong with a good start to the year will help them build more confidence and keep them in the national spotlight.

UNC fans should feel good about their quarterback situation this year and likely into the next few seasons with Maye behind Howell.


STARTER: Sam Howell
BACKUP: Jacolby Criswell, Drake Maye
RESERVES: Jefferson Boaz, Russell Tabor

Next. UNC makes cut for 4-star RB. dark

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