The 2021 college football season has been marked by chaos from the outset, so it’s no surprise some teams and players have dropped off somewhat from impressive campaigns in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.
One such example of that is North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell. He threw for 3,856 yards and 30 touchdowns to seven interceptions as a sophomore in 2020, leading the Tar Heels to an 8-4 record and Orange Bowl berth. But the third-year quarterback has struggled somewhat in 2021, leading observers to ask the question, “Why?”
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Prior to the start of the 2021 season, Howell was considered not only a Heisman Trophy front runner, but also a potential top-five draft pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, including in Sporting News’ own mocks.
One week was all it took for those expectations to crumble: Howell completed only 17 of 32 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown — to three interceptions — in a season-opening 17-10 upset to unranked Virginia Tech. That loss hasn’t looked much better since, either. The Tar Heels have gone 3-2 after that meeting, dropping games to Georgia Tech and Florida State, while the Hokies have gone 2-4.
To be sure, Howell hasn’t played poorly in 2021. He’s still projected as high as the No. 15 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft per SN’s latest mock draft. And he has completed 129 of 211 passes for 1,851 yards for 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. Projected over a full 12-game regular schedule, that would give Howell 221 completions out of 362 attempts (61.2 percent) for 3,173 yards and 31 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
That said, Howell has still seen an undeniable dropoff seven games through 2021 when compared to last season:
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One area in which Howell has improved significantly from 2020, however, is his rushing totals: He has 494 yards, a 5.1 yard-per-carry average and five touchdowns on the ground. That includes three games of 100-plus rushing yards; he fell 2 yards short of the century mark in a Week 7 win over Miami. To compare, he had 146 rushing yards and five scores in all of 2020.
Therein lies a clue to Howell’s play in 2021: Last season, he had two 1,000-yard rushers in the North Carolina backfield in Michael Carter (1,512 scrimmage yards, 11 touchdowns) and Javonte Williams (1,445 scrimmage yards, 22 touchdowns). They were not only versatile and effective players, but also kept defenses from focusing solely on Howell. Williams went in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, while Carter went in the fourth.
Tennessee grad transfer Ty Chandler has been more than serviceable at running back seven games through the season, putting up 588 rushing yards, 728 scrimmage yards and eight total scores. But the fact Howell ranks second on the team in rushing scores and touchdowns illustrates how much more he has to do in 2021 than last season.
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The same can be said of Howell’s receiving corps. He lost five of his top eight receivers from last year, including third- and sixth-round NFL draft selections Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, respectively. His third-leading receiver from last season, Khafre Brown, has only one catch for 75 yards in 2021, a year after he caught 15 passes for 337 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Brown, a sophomore, has struggled after suffering a lower-body injury in the offseason. He eventually entered the NCAA transfer portal.
Howell’s favorite target in 2021 is sophomore Josh Downs, who has 60 receptions for 837 yards and eight touchdowns. While those numbers are certainly impressive, it’s worth noting Downs’ receptions already eclipse Brown’s team-leading 55 from last season. That’s by necessity, as Antoine Greene (253 yards, one score) and Emery Simmons (243 yards, one score) are tied for second on the team with 11 receptions apiece.
Compare that to last season, when Newsome was second on the team with 54 receptions; Williams and Carter were tied for third with 25 receptions apiece, as well. What does that mean for Howell in 2021? He has fewer reliable receivers. That allows defenses to plan accordingly, focusing their protection on Downs and forcing Howell to look elsewhere.
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Any dialogue about Howell falling off from his 2020 mark has to start with his team’s record this year. None of the Tar Heels’ wins or losses has come against a ranked team. Howell wasn’t bad in his team’s losses to the Yellow Jackets or Seminoles, combining to complete 42 of 71 passes for 509 yards and four touchdowns to one interception. He also had 116 rushing yards and a score in those losses.
But his individual performances — which came against two sub-.500 teams — weren’t nearly good enough. The Tar Heels lost to Georgia Tech 45-22 and 35-25 to Florida State. Their next three games are at No. 11 Notre Dame, vs. No. 13 Wake Forest and at No. 17 Pitt. Those matchups will have a significant impact on the Tar Heels’ bowl eligibility.
If North Carolina wants to get through that stretch of games unscathed, Howell must play a central role in it.