Updated: Jul 11
With the calendar turning to the month of July, it’s time to start shifting the focus towards the upcoming 2021 season, one that will come with some of the highest expectations in program history. As we do every season, it’s time for us to give you a look at each position group and tell you what to expect from the unit in the upcoming season. We begin our in-depth look at the 2021 Tar Heels with the quarterback position that will be led by the nation’s most productive player at the position over the last two years.
Junior quarterback Sam Howell enters the year in his third season as the starter for the Tar Heels after one of the best two year starts to a career in ACC history. Behind 3,586 passing yards and a 30-7 TD-INT ratio, he was able to help propel a Tar Heel offense that averaged 41.7 points per game, 537.2 yards of total offense per game and 301.4 yards passing per game to an Orange Bowl appearance. Howell has been one of the clutchest quarterbacks in the country since his career in Chapel Hill began, as he owns the highest QBR in the fourth quarter throughout all college football since 2019. Howell will be looked upon to put this team on his back a bit early, especially on the road in Blacksburg in the opener, as the team attempts to replace the bulk of its skill position production from a year ago. Phil Longo and the Tar Heel offense should have not problem doing just that, either, with him being the Tar Heels best chance at a Heisman since Charlie “Choo-Choo” Justice back in the late 1940s. Expect another big season for Howell in 2021, one that may be his last at the college level.
The battle for who potentially replaces the eventual first round pick is already underway as of this spring. Sophomore Jacolby Criswell, who served as the backup to Howell a year ago, will attempt to hold on to the job after seeing extremely limited action a year ago. After some ups-and-downs in the fall, he returned with what appears to have been a solid spring judging off of the comments from Mack Brown. He showed that there is a reason that coming out of high school, he was said to be the perfect fit for this Phil Longo offense and there is no reason to believe that even though he has struggled a bit when we’ve seen him so far, he doesn’t have the capability to win that backup job again this fall.
He will have to fend off extremely talented true freshman Drake Maye, who showed in the spring game that he has plenty of potential. He showcased some nice arm talent and surprised people with the mobility that he showed back in April and he, like Howell, enters his Carolina career following one of the most successful prep quarterback careers in the state of North Carolina’s history. Brown said that the spring was really just a chance for Maye to learn what it’s like to be a college player and that the fall is where this battle will be settled. This is a battle that could easily extend into the season, but the goal for the Tar Heel staff has to be to find someone they can be confident in if they need them at some point this season. That may be why Criswell might be the slight favorite heading in right now.
Redshirt freshman Jefferson Boaz will also return as part of the quarterback group to help provide depth for the team at the position. Boaz showed some nice things in his limited reps in the spring game and will hope to prove himself enough to remain a part of the unit moving forward. He showed in high school that he is more than capable of getting the job done under center, but just doesn’t look as if he's ready to compete for the backup job. The good news for him is that Brown said in the spring that the goal is to have at least four scholarship quarterbacks on the roster.
True freshman walk-on Russell Tabor will also be joining the team in the fall following a nice high school career at Charlotte Country Day School in Charlotte, NC.
At this point, there is no denying that Howell is something special and we are witnessing the best quarterback to put on a Tar Heel football uniform and one of the to do it in ACC history. Even more impressive is just how deep this quarterback room has become in Mack Brown’s short time back in Chapel Hill. With Criswell, Maye and Boaz, might just have to best room in the ACC right now. The backup battle will one of the top battles of the and set the stage for one of the toughest jobs in the history of Tar Heel football history whenever Howell departs for the NFL.
Projected Depth Chart
# 7 Sam Howell, Jr.
# 6 Jacolby Criswell, So.
#10 Drake Maye, Fr.
#14 Jefferson Boaz, RFr.
#16 Russell Tabor, Fr.