By R.L. Bynum
On a rainy, messy spring day at Kenan Stadium, fans got a glimpse of Carolina’s Heisman Trophy candidate and a look at other key elements that will make the Tar Heels a highly ranked team next season.
Sam Howell connected on 6 of 10 passes for 118 yards and one touchdown and a 192.1 passer rating as his Tar Heels team beat the Carolina team 14–12 Saturday in an 85-play scrimmage.
“I thought Sam was right on the money. I mean, he came out, did the things he needed to do,” UNC coach Mack Brown said.
Spring games are always a little strangely setup and this one was no exception, with no kickoffs or punts. Played with no game clock, the contest ended when redshirt freshman defensive back Christopher Holliday intercepted a pass in the end zone that redshirt freshman quarterback Jefferson Boaz threw.
“I thought the guys competed,” Brown said. “This will be a tremendous video for us here in a couple of hours when we can start looking at the guys that we need to separate at every position but specifically the young ones. This is invaluable to the 12 high school seniors that haven’t been to a prom yet to be on their first ballgame.”
The play-calling was mostly vanilla since the coaching staff was more interested in seeing how everybody played than showing opponents anything they wouldn’t have seen on video from last season.
Howell efficiently engineered a scoring drive with a pass that Josh Downs caught over his shoulder for a 48-yard gain, followed by a 17-yard touchdown pass to Antoine Green. In the next drive, he hit Emery Simmons on an acrobatic 45-yard catch on a drive that produced a 1-yard D.J. Jones touchdown run.
Howell is maintaining a level head amid plenty of national publicity ahead of next season.
“I would say really no one has higher expectations for me than I do for myself,” said Howell of the predictions for the 2021 season for him and the team. “That’s kind of my mindset about all that. During that camp for this team, I just tried to help our team win games and not really focus on myself.”
Brown’s concern with Howell wasn’t about anything he saw on the field during spring practice, but how he is handling all of the attention that will only become greater as the season gets closer.
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“The thing you worry about a guy like Sam is, all of a sudden, he’s being promoted to the Heisman, and every article, every TV shot in the country, when they talk about quarterbacks, he’s mentioned as one of the best in the country. So, can he handle that? The message we got back was yes. He didn’t seem any different at all,” said Brown, adding that the assumption that Howell will leave after next season eliminates any speculation in that regard.
“I think we’ve tried to take the drama out of it for him,” Brown said. “He’s a guy that loves to be pushed. He kind of lives with that chip on his shoulder to show everybody how great he is. So, I think the challenge of being a top-10 preseason team, a challenge of him being one of the best quarterbacks in the country is really healthy for him.”
Downs was impressive in the Orange Bowl and offered a taste of his ability with that long receptions.
“I think we can continue to see how good Josh Downs can be,” Brown said. “He’s really fast. He’s quick. He’s tough. He gets open.”
One of the big questions was who will back up Howell, and both sophomore Jacoby Criswell and freshman Drake Maye looked good.
“I think both of those guys can be really good,” Brown said. “So, that’s exciting. I’ve seen some really good plays by both of them and they’re gonna have a load to replace a guy that we’ve got right now. You give them a chance to compete when they get back in the preseason and that’s gonna be a battle in the fall.”
Maye completed 2 of 7 passes for 14 yards and ran for 13 yards Carolina team while Criswell completed 1 of 2 passes for eight yards.
“I thought both young quarterbacks that played early did some really good things,” Brown said, “Drake runs better than people anticipate. So, he’s a much better athlete than people would think and most of those young guys can run. So, Jacoby Criswell’s quick and you could see him run and he’s got some strength in his run as well.
In the battle for playing time at running back, Josh Henderson looked good with 33 rushing yards and a 6-yard touchdown run on one drive.
“Josh Henderson made a couple of cuts that were impressive,” Brown said.
Although Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler only had two rushes for 10 yards, Brown was pleased with what he’s seen from Chandler during spring practice, other than his inability to learn the fight song.
“I am really, really impressed with Ty Chandler, as a person, a leader,” Brown said. “He’s fit in. He’s made the transition well. He’s fast. He’s strong. He made one cut back to the inside and he slashed today and he did really well.”
It will be different for Howell without the option to hand the ball off to Javonte Williams and Michael Carter.
“We were kind of unsure what that room was going to look like going into spring ball,” Howell said. “We’ve seen what Ty did at Tennessee. But, other than that, we really didn’t know what to expect. Most of the guys haven’t played a good amount of snaps at this level, so we got a really feel of what those guys can bring to the table. I’m really excited to work with those guys.”
The rushing leader for the day was Boaz, who also was a baseball and basketball star in high school. He got all 38 of his rushing yards when he ran down the left sideline after faking a handoff for a touchdown.
Linebacker Eugene Asante, who got his first college start in the Orange Bowl and two sacks in one series Saturday, likes what he sees from UNC’s running backs.
“I feel like our backs are special,” Asante said. “Having Mike and Javonte last year and having those guys mentor the guys we have now [was big]. I think Ty Chandler is a great addition to the running back room. He brings a lot of speed, a lot of quickness, a lot of great bursts when he’s getting through the hole. And then we have guys like British Brooks and Josh Anderson, who have great deal of speed, and can also lower their shoulders.”
After a taste of the potential of the 2021 Tar Heels, it will be a long 132 days before UNC opens the season on Sept. 3 at Virginia Tech.