By R.L. Bynum
While making the good news for Carolina fans official and confirming that Sam Howell will play in the Tar Heels’ bowl game, Coach Mack Brown left open a possibility that is probably unlikely — a senior season for the record-breaking quarterback.
The Duke’s Mayo Bowl game against South Carolina at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 30 at Bank of America Stadium (ESPN) will feature the same venue and opponent as Howell’s college debut and the first game of Brown’s second stint at UNC.
“Really excited about Sam Howell playing and all he’s accomplished and what he’s done,” Brown said Wednesday. “This could be his last game. He hasn’t told us for sure yet. But to have a sore shoulder, miss the Wofford game and go compete like he did, play like he did in our last game is really something special. He’s a tough young man, a smart young man. He’s been a great leader for us. He’s done so many great things.”
Howell has thrown for 10,078 yards and 91 touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 164.3 and run for 17 touchdowns in his career. He is Carolina’s all-time leader in total offense and passing yards.
There was other good news in that, as of Wednesday, no players have decided to opt-out of the bowl game. But that was the case with Javonte Williams at this point last season. He changed his mind days before the Orange Bowl, joining Michael Carter, Dyami Brown and Chazz Surratt in deciding to skip the game.
Another boost to the Tar Heels was the news that running back British Brooks, coming off two sensational games to finish the regular season, will return for a fifth season. After rushing for 89 yards and two touchdowns in the home finale against Wofford, he ran for 124 yards in the loss at N.C. State.
Brooks showed a flair for big plays with a 38-yard run against Wofford and a 40-yard run against the Wolfpack.
“He looked really good and that’s positive and exciting,” Brown said. “He’s such a great person. He’s developed into a really good running back and he’s been such a tremendous player on our special teams for the last couple of years. So, that’ll be a great addition to our team next year and especially leadership. It’s something we’ve really got to push since we’ve got a young team. So, as we get older, we’ve got to develop more leaders in each of the rooms.”
It’s been quite a journey for Brooks, who walked on to the team and kept getting better in practice even though he didn’t get many offensive snaps until the last two games.
Brooks has been a stalwart on special teams and was having none of it when coaches suggested that he didn’t need to continue that role at State given that he ended up with 15 carries.
“We tried to take him out of the game on special teams the other night and he absolutely refused,” Brown said. “We’ve got to get stronger leaders. And after the game, he was so disappointed that so many of the kids were sitting there and their heads down and crying. British said after the game, ‘boy, I hate this. I wish I could play some more.’ And then I think one of the coaches says, ‘you know, you can.’ ”
After talking to Larry Porter, UNC’s running backs coach and special-teams coordinator and then with Brown, Brooks told them, “I want to do this again.”
Brown said that when he announced Brooks’ decision to the team Sunday, the players gave him a standing ovation.
“One of the most positive things is a guy who is self-made,” Brown said. “It is a wonderful story that started as a special teamer then fought to get a position as a starting running back. And the room just went crazy because they love British Brooks and what a wonderful story. And I’ve never seen him by happier than when I talked to him Sunday.”
Although the Tar Heels return talented running backs in Caleb Hood, Elijah Green and D.J. Jones, Brooks could take the leadership role in the running back room that Ty Chandler has had this season.
“I think British will be that guy,” Brown said. “And we need to do a better job of having a great leader in every unit. And there’s no question British Brooks will be a great leader.”
ACC pool photo