By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Who will start at quarterback to lead Carolina and try to fill the void left by Sam Howell’s departure?
While there is a good bit of optimism with the influx of talent and new coaches that the Tar Heels can rebound from a 6–7 season, the answer to that key question isn’t clear.
This is at least the third time veteran UNC coach Mack Brown has gone into the summer in this situation.
Before the 2006 season at Texas, it was a dual competition between Jevan Snead and Colt McCoy. He went with McCoy for the Longhorns’ 56–7 opening-game win over North Texas. McCoy went on to earn Big 12 Player of the Year honors.
“Jevan probably led leaving spring practice,” Brown said. “We got back in the fall and I asked the older guys who looks the best. They said, ‘Oh, Colt is your quarterback. It’s 100%.’ And I said why? They said, ‘He just is, Coach, you’ll see.’ And he was.”
The choice heading into the 2022 season is between 6–1¼, 232-pound sophomore Jacolby Criswell and 6–5, 216-pound redshirt freshman Drake Maye (top photo).
“So, I figure we’ll get some feedback from players by the time we start the preseason,” Brown said. “But I like the fact that in the modern day, if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a chance to win. And we have a really strong quarterback room.”
Just like three years ago, it’s a freshman trying to beat out more experienced talent. Then it was Howell, a freshman, battling sophomores Jace Ruder and Cade Fortin. Brown indicated entering preseason camp three years ago that the competition was even and he’s sending the same signals this time around.
Once Howell and McCoy earned their starting spots, there was only mop-up playing time for their competition. But this might be a different situation if the competition stays even entering the season opener at home at 8 p.m. Aug. 27 against Florida A&M (ACC Network).
“I’m not worried about that position,” Brown said. “I think it’s going to be good. I’m not sure who starts. I’m not sure how we do it, but it’s a very talented room, so we’re going to be okay.”
The “not sure how we do it” comment may be an indication that Brown would consider using a two-quarterback system, at least for the first three games, including road games on Sept. 3 against Appalachian State (noon, ESPNU) and on Sept. 10 against Georgia State (noon, ESPNU).
If preseason camp doesn’t solidify the No. 1 guy, the Tar Heels probably need that to happen during those three games before an off week ahead of the Sept. 24 home game with Notre Dame.
“They’re both very different from each other,” UNC offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “The similarities are the massive amount of study. Being around Sam has helped them understand how well preparation helps your game.”
Maye has never dealt with a two-quarterback system, but Criswell was part of one during his freshman season at Morrilton High School in Arkansas when his dad was the head coach.
“I haven’t minded it whatsoever,” Criswell said. “Whatever is best for the team.”
Criswell passed for 5,925 yards and 58 touchdowns while rushing for 2,568 yards and 41 touchdowns over his three-year high school career.
Throughout the spring, during seven-on-seven drills during the summer and during preseason camp in August, Maye and Criswell both are competing hard for the starting job. Each is trying to gain an edge over the other in what has become a healthy competition.
Maye said he tries to focus on what he can control.
“Just worry about myself, getting better each and every day and kind of let it play out. It’s always in the background. Everybody’s asking,” Maye says of the competition.
Maye hasn’t been in the program as long as Criswell but says that he’s made terrific strides since arriving in Chapel Hill after one semester of his senior year at Myers Park High School. He says that he initially felt like a “deer in the headlights.”
“The game has slowed down a little bit,” Maye said. “It’s a lot clearer, so I feel like I’m processing things better. Last year, I was just trying to learn the basics.”
Maye threw for 6,713 yards and 86 touchdowns and completed 68.5% of his passes during his two-season high school career.
Between now and the Notre Dame game, Brown will probably pick Maye or Criswell to get the vast majority of the snaps. The negative is that neither has much college experience, but the positive is that both bring plenty of talent to the position.
Top photo via @UNCFootball