By R.L. Bynum
CHARLOTTE — Sam Howell has rare qualities beyond the talent that make him a lock to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft next year.
Most other players entering a season with such lofty expectations would revel in the attention, crave more of it and gladly embrace the Heisman Trophy hype.
On or off the field, Carolina’s junior quarterback isn’t like most players.
You’ll see no publicity campaign from UNC to promote Howell’s Heisman candidacy and, make no mistake about it, that is his preference.
Howell suggested that the reason there will be no “Howell for Heisman” posters or other gimmicks is because that’s what was decided when he discussed the possibility with Coach Mack Brown.
What if he had pushed for Carolina to publicize his Heisman candidacy?
“If I wanted to have a campaign, yeah, we could probably make that happen,” Howell said Wednesday at ACC Kickoff. “I don’t play the game really for all the attention. I don’t want things to be about me. It’s about the team. The Heisman Trophy is the ultimate team award in college football because no one can win that Heisman Trophy without a good team.”
Instead, he used his ability to capitalize on his name, image and likeness to partner with Table, a nonprofit that delivers meals to underprivileged children in Orange County, before announcing an endorsement deal Wednesday with Bojangles.
He’s hired a marketing team to work on his behalf so that he doesn’t have to worry about the mechanics of setting up endorsement deals and he can concentrate on school and football.
“I’m looking for more opportunities, things where I can involve my teammates, give them some opportunities as well,” Howell said. “I think there’s a good place for it. I just want to make sure, as a team, we keep [focused on] the main thing, and that’s winning football games.”
After UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham talked to the team about NIL rights, he asked if there were any questions.
“Sam Howell stood up and said, ‘I don’t want this to be about the quarterback, I don’t want it to be disruptive in the locker room,’ ” Brown said. “That’s one of the reasons Bubba and his team are working so hard on group licensing. They’re one of the first to do it. That means that the backup right guard is going to have a chance to be involved with opportunities that he wouldn’t be if it’s three players on your team that are.”
While some athletes in Howell’s position can quite easily fall into the “look at me” mentality, he directs the attention elsewhere.
“There have been so many people who have helped me get to where I am today,” Howell said. “That’s kind of just relying on my faith and my people, just trying to stay true to who I am. No matter where I go in life, just try to be the same person, try to be who I am on a daily basis.
“I don’t get too caught up in what other people are saying. I’m just worried about what I think of myself, what the people close to me say,” Howell said. “That’s the same mindset of my team. We’ve had a lot of hype as a team. The main thing we try to tell our guys — if people say we’re going to win 10, 12 games, it’s not just going to happen. We have to put the work in every day, prepare like it’s the biggest game of our life. That’s my mindset as a person and as a team.”
As much as he tries to shift the focus, there will be plenty of Heisman hype out there whether he wants it or not.
“I dreamed of being in this position when I was a kid,” Howell said. “God blessed me with the ability and opportunity to be in this position. So, I’m not going to complain about it at any point. It’s just the ultimate blessing.”
He’d obviously love to win the Heisman. But he knows that the award often goes to the best player on the best team and that his chances get better with every Tar Heels victory this season.
“So, I think my main goal is to give my team everything I’ve got and not worry about the Heisman Trophy,” Howell said. “I’ll try to do everything I can to help us win games and everything will take care of itself. So, my main priority is making sure I get my team ready.”
It’s hard to improve on a season in which he threw for 3,586 yards and 30 touchdowns, but Howell is working on aspects of his game such as trying to get the ball out of his hands sooner after he was sacked 33 times last season.
“That’s something I’ve struggled with my first two years,” Howell said. “In high school, I was always trying to make the big play. In college, it’s awesome when you make the big play but you just have got to kind of find a good balance, know when’s a good time to try to make that play a major play.
“I think one way I can help is in the pocket, especially when teams are bringing pressure, is just to dump to the running back,” Howell said. “I’ve put a lot of pressure on our O-line at times and put them in a lot of bad situations. I’m the reason for a lot of sacks.”
Howell lost two of his favorite receivers in Dyami Brown (44 catches for 1,099 yards and eight touchdowns last season) and Dazz Newsome (54 for 684 and six TDs) to the NFL. No Carolina wide receivers are on the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, which is given to the nation’s top FBS receiver.
But Howell is confident in his receiving corps, led by Beau Corrales, Antoine Green, Khafre Brown, Emery Simmons and Josh Downs.
“Those guys have a huge chip on their shoulder because everybody is talking about Dyami and Dazz,” Howell said. “Nobody is talking about the guys in that room. They are all super talented guys. They have worked so hard.”
There is Howell, again passing the attention onto somebody else. Not that you would expect anything else from a guy who prefers to concentrate on winning games over prevailing in a battle of hype.
He won over the UNC fan base long ago.
ACC pool photos, top one by Grant Halverson