When Carolina finished getting routed in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl last December, Tar Heel fans turned their attention to then-starting QB Sam Howell, to see if he was going to declare for the NFL Draft, or return for a senior season, to make amends for a season gone wrong. On New Year’s Day, Howell announced his plans to enter the NFL Draft and forfeit his remaining college eligibility. That decision wasn't all that surprising, as Mack Brown and his staff started recruiting for this scenario, after Howell lit the college football world on fire as a true freshman, leading a dormant UNC program to a 7-6 record, and a bowl win. One of the main focuses on the recruiting trail was Drake Maye, a can’t miss prospect from Charlotte, NC, guiding Myers Park to some of their best seasons in program history. Maye was on the radar nationally, as he was at one time, a commit to Nick Saban, and the Alabama Crimson Tide. To Mack Brown’s credit, he continued to recruit Maye, who is the son of former Tar Heel QB Mark Maye, and the younger brother of Luke Maye, a hero on the basketball court at UNC. Maye would eventually flip his commitment from Alabama, to North Carolina, giving Brown and the UNC program one of the best quarterback rooms in college football.
Even with Howell departing for the NFL, it wasn’t a given that would be the Tar Heels' starter in 2022. In addition to recruiting Maye, Carolina had already secured Jacolby Criswell, who was perceived to be the perfect fit for Phil Longo’s spread offense. Criswell was the primary backup for Howell in 2021, and when Howell missed the game against Wofford, Criswell started, with Maye seeing action as well. That set up a competition that started back in the spring and carried over into the start of fall camp. When the camp closed, and there was no official announcement on who the starter was going to be, it looked like the competition was going to carry into the start of the season. When Mack Brown met with the media the Monday before the opener against FAMU, he announced that Drake Maye had earned the right to start, but that Criswell would see action as well. He didn’t clarify when Criswell would see the field, leaving the door open that both would play in the first half. Instead, Maye went out and completed 29 of 37 passes, for 294 yards, and 5 touchdowns. He became the first Tar Heel to throw for 5 scores in their debut, and in a season opener.
After a stellar opening performance, the question around Maye was what was he capable of doing on the road, in a hostile environment as the Heels prepared to go to Boone for the first time ever, and play an App State team, that beat them in Chapel Hill just 3 years ago. Maye who had little help from his defense led them to a 63-61 win while throwing for 352 yards, and four more touchdowns. He added another score on the ground, as he amassed over 400 yards of total offense and 5 total touchdowns, announcing his arrival to the college football world in a big-time way.
In two games, Maye has accounted for 10 total touchdowns, and his 9 touchdown passes in his first two starts, are a UNC record. It is normal in today’s era of college football to see redshirt freshman quarterbacks not only start but thrive. If you recall Jameis Winston led Florida State to a national championship as a redshirt freshman, and in his first two starts, accounted for 8 total touchdowns (6 passing and 2 rushing), 570 total passing yards, with just one interception. Johnny Manziel accounted for 7 total touchdowns in his first two starts for Texas A&M in 2012, 467 passing yards, and 184 rushing yards, as he would go on to upset #1 Alabama, lead the Aggies to a Cotton Bowl victory, and win the Heisman Trophy. Maye has matched or exceeded Winston and Manziel in those categories, and in the process, there are good vibes around the football program in Chapel Hill again.
You could argue that Dabo Swinney has built the second-best program in the country, but it didn’t happen overnight. The turnaround at Clemson goes back to when Swinney hired offensive guru, Chad Morris, and Tahj Boyd became the Tigers starting QB. Boyd would post three straight double-digit win seasons (a streak still going for Clemson) and helped put the Tigers back in the national spotlight, both on the field, and on the recruiting trail. Clemson would later land Deshaun Watson, who would help lead Clemson to their first national title since 1981, before landing Trevor Lawrence, who would guide the Tiger to a 15-0 record, and the 2020 national championship. All of the success that Clemson has enjoyed would be impossible without Tajh Boyd, and while UNC hasn’t achieved many of the things Clemson did with Boyd, you could draw comparisons to his importance to the program, equal to what Sam Howell will forever mean to UNC football. It isn’t fair to ask Drake Maye to achieve the same things that Deshaun Watson did, but he’s the QB to come after Howell and is going to be the face of the program for at least the next two seasons. Whenever the Tar Heels are mentioned, Drake Maye’s name will be the first thing discussed.
One of the selling points that Mack Brown sold Drake Maye on upon flipping his commitment from Alabama to North Carolina, was that he belonged in Chapel Hill. After all, this is the school where his dad played QB, and his older brother helped win Roy Williams his third national championship. And after the first two weeks of the college football season, Maye has proven that he not only belongs at UNC, but he belongs in the conversation as one of the better, more entertaining quarterbacks in college football.