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No. 10 North Carolina: Sam Howell has a lot on his shoulders, not that you would notice

C.L. Brown
Raleigh News & Observer
North Carolina head coach Mack Brown, left, and offensive coordinator Phil Longo congratulate quarterback Sam Howell after a touchdown in last year's win over Syracuse. Howell's 68 career touchdowns already are tied for the most in school history, and some believe he could go No. 1 overall in next year's draft.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Good luck getting a rise out of North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell.

The likelihood of it being his final season in Chapel Hill before being drafted in the NFL doesn’t do it for him. He’s never publicly declared he won’t return for a senior season.

Potentially making a six-figure salary this year thanks to the passage of college athletes being able to profit from their name, image and likeness doesn’t quicken his pulse either. He siphoned that off to a marketing firm to handle for him with an emphasis on opportunities for the entire team to make money.

Howell barely raises an eyebrow despite having his name thrown around in Heisman Trophy conversations. Part of the reason UNC isn’t conducting a huge campaign for him is because he isn’t interested in them doing so.

“There are a lot of distractions, so what I’ve been trying to do is make sure I have people in place around me to kind of limit those distractions so when the season starts I can focus 100% on my team,” Howell said at Wednesday’s ACC Kickoff. “… I just want as much weight lifted off my shoulders as possible so I can really focus on football.”

Those outside things almost seem boring to Howell, who spoke in such a low tone during his time on a dais it caused reporters to sometimes cut off his answers because they thought he was finished speaking.

The one change UNC coach Mack Brown has noticed? Howell’s body language when he’s asked to give up some reps to the backup quarterbacks.

“He’s disappointed when we take him out,” Brown said. “He’s so competitive he wants to stay in there, but I told him, ‘You’re leaving, we’ve got to get a quarterback ready.’”

Don’t go writing in Jacolby Criswell or Drake Make as the 2022 starter just yet.

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell runs past Texas A&M defensive back Erick Young during last season's Orange Bowl loss on Jan. 2. Most expect Howell to jump to the NFL after this season, but the junior has not said one way or the other what his plans are.

Brown has suggested on many occasions that Howell’s third season at UNC would be his last because of his pro potential. Howell has never publicly declared he’ll leave for the NFL and Wednesday he revealed he doesn’t allow himself to think about it. Howell believes focusing too much on his future would be detrimental to his present.

“I just try to do everything I can to be the best player I can be for my team,” Howell said. “If I have a good year this year, maybe I’ll have a decision to make, but a lot can happen in a year. You see a lot of players, they get complacent in their third or fourth year. They don’t have the type of year everyone expects them to. So I just try to keep the same chip on my shoulder and keep that same work ethic.”

It’s hard to believe a quarterback with 68 career touchdown passes — tied for the most in Tar Heels history — needs to play with a chip on his shoulder. Howell’s career passing efficiency of 168.76 is higher than the ACC record of 164.26 set by Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence.

And like Lawrence, some outlets like the Sporting News have Howell rated as the No. 1 prospect for next year’s NFL draft. But his teammates say it’s no act or a front Howell puts on for the media.

Senior linebacker Tomon Fox said Howell hasn’t changed his measured approach despite a growing spotlight.

“Sam doesn’t pay attention to any of the hype, for real — he’s just focused on what we have to do in the moment,” Fox said. “Sam has grown as a leader not just on the offensive side of the ball, but as a team leader. He speaks to the young guys, he speaks to the defense, he’s able to vocalize more of what he needs to say.”

Brown said Howell has “control of a lot of people in that locker room in a positive way,” and it was largely due to his confidence.

“He knows that he’s one of the hardest workers on our team,” Brown said. “He knows he’s really good. He knows he’s got a tremendous future ahead of him. And he doesn’t run scared from those opportunities, he embraces them and competes moving forward.”

He just does it in the least animated way possible.

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants that)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Dane Belton knows path to NFL goes through team's success

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Ready or not, the Chanticleers intend to stay awhile

No. 18 Texas: Bijan Robinson looks ready to carry the load for Longhorns

No. 17 Wisconsin: Spirited spring helped Badgers bond, players say

No. 16 Miami: Manny Diaz seems intent on building Hurricanes from local talent

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks' program is now  reaching recruiting, NFL draft high marks

No. 14 LSU: Questions that Tigers have taken with them this summer

No. 13 Indiana: Texas A&M transfer Camron Buckley gives Hoosiers another weapon

No. 12 USC: All signs are pointing up for Trojans, making it sunny again in California

No. 11 Florida: Gators have holes to fill, but already sounding confident