By R.L. Bynum
Heading into the 2019 season, Sam Howell won a battle with Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder for North Carolina’s starting quarterback job.
All three clearly had talent and that’s the reason that all three are Week 1 starters. The least surprising of the three, though, is Howell as the Tar Heels’ starter Friday night at 6 o’clock (ESPN) at Virginia Tech.
Fortin, a 6–3, 221-pound sophomore, transferred to South Florida and emerged from a four-player competition as the Bulls’ starter heading into Thursday night’s 7:30 opener at N.C. State (ACC Network). He beat out Miami transfer Jarren Williams for the job.
Jace Ruder, a 6–3 228 junior, transferred to North Texas and Tuesday was named co-starter along with junior Austin Aune, as the Mean Green open the season Saturday night at home at 7:30 against Northwestern State (ESPN3).
Fortin, who was a three-star recruit out of Suwanee, Ga., when he arrived in Chapel Hill in 2018, has some experience against the Wolfpack. One of Fortin’s four games as a Tar Heel was in Kenan Stadium against State on Nov. 24, 2018, when UNC lost 34–28 in overtime.
In Fortin’s first college start, he was 19 of 40 for 276 yards (all career-highs), one touchdown and one interception, and ran for a touchdown in the game played on a cold, rainy day. He had recovered from a wrist injury in October of that season and returned against the Pack.
Thursday, though, USF is an 18.5-point underdog.
In four games at UNC, Fortin completed 23 of 65 passes for 388 yards and a touchdown. He entered the transfer portal before the 2019 season.
This is Fortin’s second season at USF. Last season, he was fourth on the depth chart and, after attempting only eight passes while playing in a pair of blowout losses, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
South Florida, which is in the American Athletic Conference, hasn’t had a winning season since a 10–2 year under Coach Charlie Strong in 2017. That was the Bulls’ third consecutive winning season.
Strong was fired after the Bulls went 4–8 in 2019. This is the second season under Coach Jeff Scott after they went 1–8 last season, winning only the opener against The Citadel 27–6.
Fortin makes a second trip to North Carolina on Oct. 28 when the Bulls visit East Carolina in a Thursday night ESPN game.
Ruder and Aune beat out veteran backup Kason Martin to share the top of the North Texas depth chart. Aune, a transfer from Arkansas, connected on 101 of 185 passes for 1,650 yards, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions last season.
North Texas is in Conference USA but doesn’t face league member Charlotte this season.
Ruder, a four-star recruit out of Norton, Kansas, redshirted at UNC in 2018 after completing 4 of 8 passes for 80 yards in a touchdown in his only game that season against Georgia Tech. He played in two games in 2019 before suffering a season-ending injury against Georgia Tech. Last season, Ruder played for UNC against Syracuse, Duke and Western Carolina.
In three seasons at Carolina, he completed 7 of 10 passes for 98 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. He rushed six times for 40 yards.
The head coach in his sixth season at North Texas is Seth Littrell, who was an assistant head coach for offense and tight ends coach under Larry Fedora at Carolina. The Mean Green went 4–6 last season and lost to 56–28 to Appalachian State in the Myrtle Beach Bowl after going 4–8 in 2019. Littrell’s teams went to bowls in his first three seasons, going 5–8 in 2016, 9–5 in 2017 and 9–4 in 2018.