Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is very familiar with North Carolina true freshman quarterback Sam Howell, having recruited Howell when he was a star at Sun Valley High School in Monroe, North Carolina.
Howell, who was a highly touted prospect in the 2019 recruiting class, received a scholarship offer from the Tigers in January 2018, visited Clemson several times during the recruiting process and seriously considered Swinney’s program.
However, Howell committed to Florida State in April 2018 before eventually flipping his commitment to UNC on Dec. 19, 2018, the first day of the early signing period.
Mack Brown made a big push for Howell after being re-hired as UNC’s head coach in late November of last year, and Howell marked Brown’s first major recruiting victory in his second stint with the Tar Heels.
“We really loved him,” Swinney said of Howell on Tuesday. “Thought he was a great player, and he’s going to be. He’s a good player now. He’s made a lot of plays. He’s a big reason they’ve had a chance to win every game. When he’s in the game, he gives them that chance every week to win. He’s that type of guy.”
Swinney sees similarities between Howell and Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, who won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma in 2017 before being selected by the Browns with the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
“He’s kind of Baker Mayfield-esque, if you will,” Swinney said. “He’s not as fast as Baker, but he’s got that type of toughness, grit … gets better as the game goes. Seems like the bigger the moment, the better he plays. So, he’s just got a little moxie and savviness to him.”
In his first four games at North Carolina, Howell has completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 1,024 yards and nine touchdowns with two interceptions.
Swinney knows one of the keys to victory for the top-ranked Tigers in Saturday’s game at North Carolina will be containing Howell, who can also hurt defenses with his running ability in addition to his arm.
“Obviously he’s a young player, but makes a lot of plays with his legs,” Swinney said. “Has a good feel for the pocket, scrambling around… They do run him as well. They’ll run some option, they’ll run obviously the zone read, but they run a lot of quarterback draws as well and lots of RPOs.”
“This quarterback, he’s as tough as they come,” Swinney later added. “He’s taken some hits, and he just gets better. He doesn’t run to get down, he’s running to punish people. He’s a tough, hard-nosed player.”
Another thing that Swinney has noticed about Howell is his knack for stepping up his game in crunch time.
“For whatever reason, he’s been really good in the fourth quarter,” Swinney said. “If you track him, in the fourth quarter, he’s like 70-something percent on his passes of 10 yards or more. Prior to that, he’s not near as good. So, when the game’s been on the line, he’s been really good and has made some plays.”
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