When fall camp opens on Friday, the Tar Heels will continue the race to find their next starting quarterback after the departure of their best statistical quarterback in program history. Head coach Mack Brown has fielded a multitude of questions about the battle so far this offseason, but this is far from the first time that he has had to deal with this situation heading into fall camp. Let's take a look at the quarterback battles that Brown has overseen since his first stint at Carolina as we try to get a feel for what could happen in this year’s.
1988: Todd Burnett, Jonathan Hall and Deems May
Brown entered his first season in Chapel Hill with a quarterback battle to deal with after the departure of the highly regarded Mark Maye. This was one battle that didn’t work out too great for the Tar Heels, as the team never really found a stable guy throughout the course of a brutal season. May struggled mightily out of the gate leading to his move to tight end while Hall and Burnett swapped on and off for the rest of the year without much success either way. This ultimately ended up being a season where the team was only able to muster one win.
1989: Todd Burnett, Chuckie Burnette and Jonathan Hall
The battle from 1988 would carry over into the offseason with a new challenger entering the race in Burnette. Once again, there was zero stability at the position throughout the entire season with all three quarterbacks having their struggles. Burnette posted one of the worst touchdown-to-interceptions in program history, throwing fourteen interceptions to just two touchdowns while both Burnett and Hall struggled to be able to stretch the field when they were under center. The team limped to yet another 1-10 season with an offense that was even worse than the year prior.
1990: Todd Burnett and Chuckie Burnette
For a third straight year this battle raged on, this time absent Hall, but Burnett was able to get a grip on the job for the majority of the season and it led to more success for the team overall. While it wasn’t an outstanding season for him (51.1 comp %, 1,139 yds, 4-6 TD-INT) the stability at the position really seemed to pay off, as the team finished with their first winning record since 1986 and averaged more than 20.0 points per game for the first time since that season as well.
1991: Todd Burnett, Chuckie Burnette and Jason Stanicek
Even though Burnett led the Tar Heel offense to some solid success, he once again had to battle for his starting job and actually lost it to Burnette, who would start seven games before Stanicek would take over for him late in the season. The move to Stanicek proved to be the boost that this team needed down the stretch, with him going 3-1 and helping lead the team to the precipice of a bowl game for the first time since that 1986 season.
1992: Jason Stanicek and Mike Thomas
Stanicek’s success wasn’t enough to avoid another competition in the offseason, as the extremely versatile Thomas made a push for the starting job. This was another one of those battles that extended into the season and saw the quarterbacks split time, but the offense took another step overall, averaging 397.7 yards of total offense per game since, you guessed it, that ‘86 season. The Tar Heels finished the season 9-3 and won the Peach Bowl over Mississippi State, the team’s first bowl win since 1982 over Texas in the Sun Bowl.
1997: Oscar Davenport and Chris Keldorf
When people talk about the team using two quarterbacks, this is an example that they should point to if they are looking for that system working to perfection. Keldorf’s injury opened the door for Davenport and the latter took advantage of it, leading to the two splitting starts for the entirety of the season. The team used the method that Mack Brown has talked so much about this offseason, rolling with the hot hands throughout the season and it led to plenty of success. The two combined to average a then-program record 261.8 passing yards per game on the way to helping the team finish 11-1, tied for the best record in program history.
2001: Major Applewhite and Chris Simms
Brown didn’t face any major quarterback battles in his first few years on campus, but the first one was extremely controversial in the eyes of Texas supporters. Applewhite, a three-year starter for the team from 1998-2000, got banged up down the stretch of the 2000 season, opening the door for Simms. Brown decided to role with Simms for the majority of the season, a decision that many Longhorn fans were strongly in disagreement at the time. Simms would start the first twelve games of the season but would get banged up in the regular season finale leading to Applewhite taking over for the rest of that game and the bowl game. In the end, this appeared to have been the right decision, as the Longhorns went 11-2 with a Holiday Bowl victory over Washington. It was the first eleven win season for the program since 1983.
2003: Chance Mock and Vince Young
This may seem like a wild one on surface but before Young became the national title winner and Heisman runner-up, he had to battle Monk to win the starting job. Mock actually won the job in 2003, starting the first six games of the season before the two would alternate starts the rest of the season. Mock actually had the better season through the air (54.6 comp %, 1,469 yds, 16-2 TD-INT) than Young (58.7 comp %, 1,155 yds, 6-7 TD-INT), but Young’s ability on the ground (135 rush, 998 yds, 11 TD) added an element that the offense lacked with Mock on the field. The Longhorns would finish the season 10-3, falling in the Holiday Bowl to Washington State.
2004: Chance Monk and Vince Young
These two continued the battle into the offseason, but Young was finally able to create enough separation to win the starting job and never looked back. He started every game for the team and led them to eleven wins and a Rose Bowl victory over Michigan in the process. This season set the table for his jump in 2005, one of the best seasons for any quarterback in NCAA history.
2006: Colt McCoy and Jevan Snead
Following the departure of Young after that ‘05 season, Brown had to sort out this battle between two extremely highly-rated prospects. This is one that Brown mentioned many times before back in 2019 and this offseason, as the player-led practices in the summer were the major difference here. McCoy beat Snead out early in fall camp and never turned back, eventually leading to Snead’s transfer. McCoy went on to become the winningest quarterback in Longhorn history and remains in the midst of an extended NFL career, while Snead had an up and down stint with Ole Miss and failed to make an NFL roster.
2011: David Ash, Garrett Gilbert, Case McCoy and Connor Wood
After two tremendous conclusions to quarterback battles, this one went in a similar direction to some of the ones that we saw early in Brown’s tenure in Chapel Hill. Gilbert was the veteran coming off of a rough 2010 season after taking over for the departed Colt McCoy. The hope was that one of the underclassmen would be able to beat him out, but things weren’t that easy. Gilbert actually won the job out of camp and started the first two games of the season, but was pulled in that second game after a tough first few drives against BYU and never stepped foot on the field again for Texas. The rest of the season saw Ash and Case McCoy split the starting duties, with each getting individual stretches to start that left many unimpressed. The team finished the season 8-5 and with just as many questions exiting the season as they had headed in.
2012: David Ash and Case McCoy
These two battled into the offseason, but Ash would eventually pull ahead and overtake the full-time starting role in camp. He started all but one game for the team, but McCoy did step in a few times in the middle of games and started the final game of the regular season against Kansas State due to a rib injury that Ash suffered the previous week against TCU. The team was able to finish the season with a better record than the previous year at 9-4 and appeared to have solved their quarterback issues before concussions would derail the promising trajectory of Ash’s career.
2019: Cade Fortin, Sam Howell and Jace Ruder
Brown was faced with a quarterback battle right out of the gate in his return to Chapel Hill and this one went similarly to his first few at Texas. Fortin and Ruder were the incumbents, but most knew before spring camp even began that it was only a matter of time before Howell would take over as the starter. The true freshman wasted no time, winning the job right out of the gate and putting together one of the best true freshman seasons in ACC history in the process. With him leading the charge, the team finished 7-6 with a Military Bowl routing of Temple to cap it off.
For Criswell and Maye, they will enter fall camp neck-and-neck and there has been talk that until they separate, the plan will be to play two quarterbacks. That will create some uneasiness, but Brown’s track record should give Tar Heel fans confidence that he will make the right decision.