After winning only a combined 5 games the final two years of the Larry Fedora era, Carolina won 7 a year ago, in Mack Brown’s first season back in Chapel Hill. In the process they managed to beat both Duke and NC State, and routed Temple in the Military Bowl, giving the program it’s first bowl win since the 2013 Belk Bowl. There were many different factors that played into the quick turnaround, but the main constant was the stellar play of true freshman quarterback, Sam Howell. Howell became the first true freshman quarterback to start a game in program history, and that wasn’t the only history he made running the Tar Heel offense. Howell threw for over 3,600 yards, to go along with 38 touchdowns, against only 7 interceptions. His 38 touchdown tosses set a record for a true freshman not only in the ACC, but in the entire FBS. Those numbers got him named ACC Rookie of the Year, ACC Offensive Rookie of the Year, and was a consensus freshman All-America. His individual play is a main reason why Carolina is a trendy pick to win the ACC Coastal division, and that could have Howell in New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
While Howell was a freshman sensation, he isn’t the first rookie quarterback to take the college football world by storm in recent memory. Johnny Manziel became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy at Texas A&M in 2012. The following year, Jameis Winston not only won the Heisman, but led Florida State to the BCS national championship, after being responsible for 51 touchdowns. Just two years ago Trevor Lawrence led Clemson to their first ever perfect season, capping the season with a demolition of Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. All of that success led to insurmountable expectations, which Howell will be faced with entering 2020. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how all three of those quarterbacks fared in their sophomore seasons, and how Howell can compare.
Manziel (37): Johnny Football made as many plays with his legs as he did his arm during his Heisman trophy winning season, but as a sophomore became more reliable on his arm, throwing for 11 more touchdowns in his second season in College Station.
Winston (25): Winston didn’t replicate his magical freshman season, as his numbers dipped across the board, including throwing for 15 less touchdowns than the year before, despite completing and attempting more passes.
Lawrence (36): Now that the job was all his, Lawrence improved his numbers by 6, after throwing 30 touchdowns, even though he split time with Kelly Bryant the first half of the season. What’s more impressive is that Lawrence still threw for that many touchdown, with Travis Etienne in the backfield.
While both Manziel and Lawrence improved their numbers, both failed to throw for more touchdowns as a sophomore than Howell did as a freshman. It’s going to be difficult for Howell to top his 38 touchdowns, especially with Michael Carter and Javonte Williams in the backfield with him.
Manziel (4,114): Just like his touchdown numbers, Manziel improved his passing yards by over 400 yards. He achieved both of those feats, despite attempting 4 less passes than his freshman campaign.
Winston (3,907): Same as with his touchdown passes, Winston’s passing yards took a slight dip, throwing for 150 yards less than his first season at Florida State.
Lawrence (3,665): It wasn’t a surprise to see Lawrence improve this stat as well, since the offense was completely his, and with the list of weapons at his disposal it’s almost impossible for him to not put up big numbers. But a lot like his touchdown passes, you can only wonder what this stat could’ve been, had he not had a premier running back to hand the ball off to.
With Manziel and Lawrence both improving their stats in this category, it's not outlandish to think that Howell could throw for more yards in his second season in Phil Longo’s offense. But as I mentioned earlier, with so much production in the backfield, Howell’s numbers could dip if the offense is successful at running the football.
Manziel (69.9%): It’s the third category where we see Manziel continue to have a better second season statistically than the year prior. While it was only a 1.9% increase, he still became more accurate, in light of more attempts.
Winston (65.3%): It’s the exact opposite for Winston compared to Manziel, as this is the third consecutive category where his numbers have fallen off. It was a 1.6% decrease for Winston, who clearly struggled adjusting to defenses with a better game plan for him.
Lawrence (65.8%): After a slow start, Lawrence was able to rebound and improve his complexion percentage by 0.6%.
This is the biggest area where Howell could use some major improvement. As a freshman, Howell completed only 61.4% of his passes, and while the offense is dependent on down field throws, you’d like to see that number around 65%. That’s possible with the amount of production that;s returning, and Howell should be more comfortable in the offense.
Manziel (13): This is the first category where Manziel didn’t improve from his spectacular freshman season. While more completions, and attempts meant more touchdown passes and yards, it also meant more interceptions. After throwing just 9 the year before, he threw 13 as a sophomore.
Winston (18): While his numbers steadily declined across the board, this is where they really went in the wrong direction. After throwing just 10 interceptions in his Heisman trophy winning season, Winston threw 18, and played one less game than the year before.
Lawrence (8): Lawrence doubled his interception totals, but the 8 interceptions didn't hinder his team from competing for a national championship like it did with Manziel and Winston. It was also expected for him to throw more interceptions, since he didn’t have to share time at the quarterback position.
Howell only threw 7 in his rookie season, and there’s no reason to believe that number will increase at the rate of Manziel or Winston. Sam displays the football acumen to not take risks downfield, and would take a sack before committing a costly turnover. It also doesn’t hurt that he has rare arm talent for such a young quarterback, which allows him to get the football in places most signal callers can’t.
Manziel (172.9): It was no surprise to see this number improve with the passing numbers he posted. In light of throwing 4 more interceptions than the year before, his passer rating improved by 17.6 points, as overall he became a more efficient and effective thrower of the football.
Winston (145.5): Just like it was easy to see why Manziel’s rating improved, it’s easy to see why Winston’s dropped. His rating fell from 184.8 all the way down to 145.5, confirming that he wasn’t the same quarterback, he was the year before.
Lawrence (166.7): While his improvement wasn’t as drastic as it was for Manziel, Lawrence posted a 9.1 increase in this department, as he guided Clemson back to the national championship game.
Howell had a 160.2 rating, which was better than what Manziel posted in his Heisman trophy season, and better than the rating Lawrence had while guiding Clemson to it’s first perfect season. If Howell can improve his completion percentage, and keep the interceptions minimal, he can definitely improve in this category as well.
In conclusion, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that Howell can’t improve off his record breaking freshman season in Chapel Hill. Only Jameis Winston had a steep decline in production in his sophomore season. Howell is highly regarded as the third best quarterback in the country already, falling in line behind Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields. Howell is poised to have a big year, but if his numbers dip it might not be a reflection of his play. Not many teams in the country have the backfield Carolina will have this season, and Mack Brown has stressed the importance of having a balanced attack. On the flip side, if he has another year like last season, Carolina is poised to compete for the ACC, and Howell can find himself taking home a lot of hardware in the off-season.