Downs catching intense competition to replace Howell at QB

By R.L. Bynum

CHAPEL HILL — There are a lot of questions coming out of spring practice for Carolina but who will be the big-play receiver isn’t one of them.

Drake Maye figures to be the favorite to start at quarterback for the Tar Heels in August, but whoever gets the call has the real luxury of throwing to junior wide receiver Josh Downs. Downs showed that big-play prowess again with first-half touchdown receptions of 12 yards from Jacolby Criswell and 38 yards from Maye.

“The quarterbacks were just on the money,” said Downs, who called Criswell’s throwing arm the best he’s ever seen. “They knew where to throw the ball.”

The offense did better in the points system against the defense 42–30, with the Maye-led “Carolina” team and the Criswell-led “Tar Heels” team playing pretty much on even terms in the #TyleeStrong Spring Football Game at Kenan Stadium on a cool April afternoon.

“I’ve definitely seen them take a new leadership role and definitely be more vocal, especially Jacolby,” Downs said. “Drake’s always had that type of swagger in him as a leader. But Jacolby’s definitely stepped up and he’s been a more vocal leader. He’s been talking to a lot of people. And I’m seeing a lot more of that out of Jacolby. I’m really proud of both of them.”

Josh Downs caught two touchdown passes in Saturday’s spring game.

Maye (6 of 8 for 73 yards and a touchdown) and Criswell (6 of 6 for 104 yards and a touchdown) looked good, but the mild surprise was Conner Harrell (4 of 6 for 30 yards) quarterbacking the second drive of the scrimmage.

Just like when Sam Howell emerged from a three-player competition for the starting job as a freshman in 2019, Coach Mack Brown is saying that none of the quarterbacks have separated from the others after spring practice.

“They’re a lot alike,” Brown said of Maye and Criswell. “People say, ‘Ahh, they’re just saying that to keep them both here.’ We’re not. Both of them have quick arms. Both of them can throw the ball deep. They’re both accurate. They both can run.”

Criswell’s big edge is experience. He has been in the program for two years while Maye has played one half of football in the last two years. 

That has meant some challenges for Maye, who played in the second half of the Wofford game last season but mostly hasn’t felt true game action in two years. To keep both healthy, defenders weren’t allowed to hit the quarterbacks Saturday, either.

“Just kind of getting a feel for playing a game live during practice and these types of games,” said Maye, who arrived in Chapel Hill for the 2021 spring semester during what was his senior year in high school. “So, just getting hit again, feeling the pressure. Haven’t got hit since my high school junior year with COVID and all that. So [it’s good to] just to be back in the flow of things and taking a couple of shots. But I don’t think that’s a major problem.”

You got a little taste of the competition on Saturday. Maye came back after failing to convert on a fourth-and-four on the first drive to throw his TD pass to Downs after Criswell put up his scoring strike.

Those are the sort of sequences that are fueling their friendly competition.

“That’s what’s helping us both get better,” Maye said. “We’re kind of pushing each other to both get better. It’s great to have another guy in the room push you. We’re both getting better every day.”

Maye and Criswell both seem to be relishing the competition and both said it’s fun. In addition to the big void of experience Howell left, both also need to try to become the same sort of leader.

“We’re getting a lot more reps and practice time, trying to take on kind of a leadership role,” Maye said. “That’s a big thing that all the coaches have been preaching this year — just trying to lead these guys. We’ve got a lot of talent and we’re just putting it together.”

Criswell’s situation is vastly different from last season, when he knew that he’d only play if Howell got hurt or a game became a blowout.

“Last year, with having Sam there, I knew my role,” Criswell said. “This year, I know I’m battling now for a position. Not saying I wasn’t as locked in last year. But this year, I have a different mindset. Go and attack the day.

“You’ve got Drake out there,” said Criswell, who hit Downs on a crossing pattern for his TD pass. “I mean, he’s competitive. I’m competitive. We’re just going to make each other better. Every day, we just both go out there and try to win every rep we can.”

In a competition like this, neither wants to be on the sidelines for any reps. Maye tweaked an ankle at one point during practice and Criswell tweaked his hamstring. But both went right back out there.

“It’s a competitive thing. I mean, you see someone make a huge play. You’re like, all right, I can make that same play, or I can do that,” Criswell said. “We’re just very competitive. Anything I do that looks awesome, he’s going to make sure he does it even awesomer. We’re just competitive. The offense is set with whoever is the quarterback. This offense is going to explode no matter what.”

Maye seems to be doing a good job despite being in the program one semester fewer than Criswell, with a lot fewer reps.

“Jacolby does a great job, and we’re battling out,” Maye said. “So, I just worry about myself getting better every day. And that’s all I can do, really.”

Brown says that the quarterback who shows he can release the ball more quickly to avoid sacks and be the most accurate will have the edge.

“We’ve had too many sacks; we didn’t have any today,” Browns said. “Get the ball out of your hand. And we’ve worked so hard on that. Sacks ruin drives. And we’ve had so many of them to ruin drives. As good as we’ve been on offense, we’ve been able to overcome it. I don’t want to be that team. I want us to go back and be a lot more consistent. And I’m seeing that with both quarterbacks.”

Brown didn’t discount the possibility that both could play in games after one gets named the starter.

“We could put one in the game. If he does well, leave him in. If he struggles, put the other one in,” Brown said. “Usually somebody has a hot hand during the game. We’ve got a lot of thinking to do. We’ll go back and look at it hard in the fall. But we’re just so fortunate to have two really good ones and another young one that I thought looked good.”

That young one is Harrell, a 6-1, 195-pound freshman from Alabaster, Ala., who had a 62-yard touchdown pass to Kobe Paysour called back because of a penalty.

In the second half, a 38-yard pass from Criswell to John Copenhaver led to D.J. Jones’ 1-yard TD run on an eight-play drive.

Antoine Green’s 36-yard run keyed a 53-yard drive for the Carolina team to produce a scoring drive that ended with his 3-yard TD run to tie the game at 14. Green led the game with 61 rushing yards on nine carries.

Fourth-string quarterback Jefferson Boaz engineered a late 56-yard scoring drive that ended when Jake Harkleroad intercepted his pass 10 yards away from the end zone.

Spring game statistics

Photos via @UNCFootball

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