The topic of where the Tar Heels' true freshman quarterback stands in the college football quarterback hierarchy became a highly talked about one this past Sunday morning following another stellar performance from the man we call Slingin’ Sammy Howell. After a phenomenal nine-game start to his college career, many are debating that Howell currently ranks amongst college football’s elite gunslingers. To figure out where we place Howell, we will answer three different questions that should be able to give us a range of where to place him ten weeks into his college career.
Is He The Best True Freshman Quarterback In The Country?
Yes, and honestly it feels like it not as close as some national media members may think. Bo Nix was the early favorite for many after his showing against Oregon, but as he has begun to face stiffer competition in SEC play, he has ran into some struggles. While Nix is coming off of one of his top performances of the season, he enters with just three games so far in which he has thrown for over 200 yards. To compare, Howell has thrown for less than 200 yards in a game just twice in his first nine games. Nix has thrown twelve touchdowns so far this season in nine games, while Howell has thrown eleven in his last three games alone. Nix has been intercepted six times so far this season, which is not bad by any means, but Howell has thrown just five in 51 more attempts. Nix has definitely faced tougher competition, but Howell looked good in the toughest test that he faced this season against Clemson and against the only SEC opponent that he faced on the schedule in South Carolina. The good news is, these two will get to see each other in next year’s season opener in Atlanta, which will serve as the ultimate decider in this debate.
Arizona State’s Jayden Daniels has a case for himself, but he has been hit and miss at times during conference play and was benched in the team’s most important game of the season against Utah. USC’s Kedon Slovis has been incosistent since his first start against Stanford, including tough showings in losses to BYU and Oregon, while South Carolina's Ryan Hilinski impressed in his first two starts and has recovered after a tough four-game stretch following that Alabama game.
Is He The Best Quarterback In The ACC?
Not yet, but he is building a case. Howell currently ranks first in the conference in passing yards and passing touchdowns, and his 26-5 TD-INT ratio is also tops in the ACC. Howell has thrown for 300+ yards and 4+ touchdowns in three of the last four games, something that no other ACC quarterback has accomplished so far this season.
Let’s start in the ACC Coastal. Only three other teams in the division have had the same starting quarterback in each game this season. Virginia’s Bryce Perkins has a strong case, especially after his performance against the Tar Heels on Saturday night, but he has been fighting through injury most of the season and Saturday was the first time this season that he has had the Virginia offense consistently moving up and down the field. Duke's Quentin Harris and Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett are both solid starters, but are nothing more than high end game-managers.
The ACC Atlantic boasts much stronger competition. Tommy DeVito has had a nice year stats wise, but him and the Syracuse Orange have yet to win a conference game. Jamie Newman got his season off to a phenomenal start for Wake Forest, but missed some time due to an injury suffered against Louisville. Still, his case is a strong one with his 2,059 passing yards and 20-5 TD-INT ratio that he has accumulated in seven games, numbers that have helped the Demon Deacons piece together a 7-1 record.
Trevor Lawrence is still the clear No. 1 in the ACC, though. Lawrence entered the 2019 season as the Heisman favorite after a true freshman season that saw him throw for 3,280 yards and post a 30-4 TD-INT ratio in thirteen starts. More importantly, Lawrence came in and led the Tigers to their second national title victory under Dabo Swinney with a blowout of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Although he has taken a step back this season, Lawrence has still put together another strong season as a sophomore and once again has Clemson sitting undefeated and in the playoff hunt. He hasn’t been nearly as dominant, though, and that could open the door to that No. 1 spot if both Howell and Newman finish the season strong.
Is He The Best Quarterback In The Country?
This is where the initial argument began. The argument for Howell is that the stats that he is accumulating to this point of his career are simply amazing. While they are great numbers, as we talked about above, Howell isn’t the first true freshman to put up these types of numbers. Another argument that many threw out in favor of Howell is the fact that other quarterbacks who might be ahead of him have better talent around them. While that statement definitely seems to ring true, the other quarterbacks are faced with much tougher competition week in and week out, especially any of the quarterbacks that hail from the SEC or Big Ten. The main reason it is hard to place Howell at No. 1 or even amongst the top five quarterbacks in the country at this time is that this Tar Heel team is 4-5. While it clearly isn’t all in the hands of Howell, wins and losses are widely regarded quarterback statistics and his record certainly isn’t that of the freshman seasons for Lawrence or Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm who helped lead Georgia to the national title game for the first time since 1980 as a true freshman. Right now, Howell just isn’t on that level and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean that he is not a special quarterback or that he can't eventually get into the conversation as the best quarterback in the country in future if he continues to build on this impressive start to his career.
Where We Rank Him: I think at this point it’s safe to say that Howell is comfortably a top 20 quarterback in the nation. There is a strong argument to be made for him to possibly be in the top fifteen, as well, which is where we at the Heel Tough Blog officially place him at this time. With the graduation and NFL Draft decisions of some of the guys ahead of him looming, it’s not a stretch to think that Howell could head into the 2020 season as a top ten quarterback in the country and one of the top Heisman contenders, especially if he finishes the year strong.