The 2021 college football season has been marked by chaos from the start, so it’s no wonder some teams and players have dropped some impressive campaigns in the COVID-19 shortened 2020 season.
An 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 a spot in the Orange Bowl. But the third-year quarterback has had some struggles in 2021, prompting observers to ask, “Why?”
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Before the start of the 2021 season, Howell was considered not only a Heisman Trophy favorite, but also a possible top-five pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, even in Sporting News’ own simulations.
One week was all it took for those expectations to crumble: Howell completed just 17 of 32 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown, to three interceptions, in a 17-10 upset in the season opener against Virginia Tech. That loss hasn’t looked much better since then. The Tar Heels have gone 3-2 after that meeting, losing games to Georgia Tech and Florida State, while the Hokies have gone 2-4.
Howell has certainly not played wrong in 2021. He still projects as high as the No. 15 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft based on SN’s latest mock draft. And he has completed 129 of 211 passes for 1,851 yards for 18 touchdowns and six interceptions. Projected on a full 12-game regular schedule, that would give Howell 221 completions of 362 attempts (61.2 percent) for 3,173 yards and 31 touchdowns for 10 interceptions.
That said, Howell has still seen an undeniable drop in seven games through 2021 compared to last season:
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However, one area in which Howell has improved significantly since 2020 is his rushing totals: He has 494 yards, an average of 5.1 yards per carry and five touchdowns on the ground. That includes three games of more than 100 rushing yards; he fell 2 yards below the century mark in a Week 7 win over Miami. For comparison, he had 146 rushing yards and five touchdowns in all of 2020.
Here’s a hint from Howell’s game in 2021: Last season, he had two 1,000-yard running backs in the North Carolina backfield in Michael Carter (1,512 hitting yards, 11 touchdowns) and Javonte Williams (1,445 hitting yards, 22 touchdowns). Not only were they versatile and effective players, they also kept defenses from focusing solely on Howell. Williams entered the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, while Carter entered the fourth.
The transfer of Tennessee graduate Ty Chandler has been more than useful as a running back seven games throughout the season, adding 588 rushing yards, 728 hitting yards and eight total touchdowns. But the fact that Howell is second on the team in rushing and touchdowns illustrates how much more he has to do in 2021 than he did last season.
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The same can be said of Howell’s receptor body. He lost five of his top eight receivers last year, including third- and sixth-round NFL draft picks Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, respectively. His third-leading receiver from last season, Khafre Brown, has just one catch for 75 yards in 2021, a year after catching 15 passes for 337 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Sophomore Brown has struggled after sustaining a lower body injury in the offseason. He finally 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 that Downs’ receptions already dwarf the 55 leaders of Brown’s team from last season. That’s out of necessity, as Antoine Greene (253 yards, one touchdown) and Emery Simmons (243 yards, one touchdown) are tied for second on the team with 11 catches apiece.
Compare that to last season, when Newsome was second on the team with 54 receptions; Williams and Carter were also tied for third with 25 receptions each. What does that mean for Howell in 2021? It has fewer reliable receivers. That allows defenses to plan accordingly, focusing their protection on the Downs and forcing Howell to look elsewhere.
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Any dialogue about Howell falling off his 2020 mark must start with his team’s record this year. None of the Tar Heels wins or losses have been against a classified team. Howell was not 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 on an interception. He also had 116 rushing yards and a touchdown in those losses.
But their individual performances, which came against two teams under .500, weren’t good enough. The Tar Heels lost to Georgia Tech 45-22 and 35-25 to Florida State. His next three games are at No. 11 Notre Dame, against No. 13 Wake Forest and No. 17 Pitt. Those matchups will have a significant impact on Tar Heels bowl eligibility.
If North Carolina wants to get out of that stretch of games unscathed, Howell must play a central role in it.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.