Does Sam Howell’s silence mean he’s returning? Here’s what UNC’s Mack Brown thinks

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North Carolina coach Mack Brown tried to bring clarity on Sam Howell’s future, where there’s still some confusion, while speaking Wednesday about the Tar Heels’ invitation to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte.

Howell, a junior quarterback, will be playing in the game against South Carolina on Dec. 30 in Bank of America Stadium. What is still somewhat unclear is if it will be the last game in a UNC uniform for Howell before he embarks on an NFL career.

“I’m really excited about Sam Howell playing and all he’s accomplished and what he’s done,” Brown said. “This could be his last game. He hasn’t told us for sure yet.”

That’s the part that has some Carolina fans wondering if Howell is open to the possibility of returning for his senior season.

He participated in Senior Day activities during the Heels’ win over Wofford 34-14 on Nov. 20. But even that week before the game, Howell said he hadn’t made a decision about his future. His reasoning for being involved with Senior Day was because he will complete his undergraduate degree this semester.

Brown is still proceeding as if Howell is going to leave. Brown has been saying since last season that Howell would leave for the NFL after this season because his draft stock is so high.

“He’s going to be a first-round draft choice in my estimation,” Brown said. “His family is getting information just like all the other guys to make that decision. Normally, we’ve told our guys if you’re a first-rounder, go, but he doesn’t want to be a distraction for the team.”

Brown added that ultimately it’s up to a player and his family to make the decision on whether or not to turn pro early and the UNC staff should “stay out of those decisions completely,” other than providing feedback from NFL sources about where they may be picked in the draft.

Howell is Carolina’s all-time leader in passing yards and total offense. He’s thrown at least one touchdown pass in all 36 games he’s played in — including his first game as a freshman against the Gamecocks in the 2019 season opener. He has only missed one start the past three seasons, when he sat out against Wofford.

Pro Football Focus projected Howell as the 18th overall pick of the first round in its latest NFL mock draft. The only other quarterbacks it has rated higher than Howell are Pitt’s Kenny Pickett and Mississippi’s Matt Corral.

Brown pointed out that many players projected that high would have already shut things down, but Howell returned to action after suffering a shoulder injury against Pitt to play the regular-season finale against N.C. State.

“A lot of guys would not have played in our last game because they had a hurt shoulder,” Brown said. “And he’s worried about the NFL so he would have just not played in that game. And not only did he play in the game, he said, ‘Run me, man. Do whatever we need to do to win the game.’ He’s an unbelievable young guy and he is tough as nails.”

Losing the games at Pitt and at N.C. State late, Brown said it’s really important to Howell that the Heels finish strong.

“He doesn’t want to talk about him before this game, he knows this game’s important for us,” Brown said. “We didn’t finish a couple that would have given us eight wins, and have a chance to win nine games in the bowl game. And we came short on those games. So it’s really important to him that we finish right.”

The Heels will have a good chance to with a full roster. Running back Javonte Williams, now with the Denver Broncos, notified the staff last season a week before the Heels’ Orange Bowl appearance against Texas A&M that he wasn’t going to play.

Brown said the staff met with players on Sunday and checked to see if anyone was opting out of the game. So far, no one has.

“Obviously, we had one pull out really late last year, so it could still happen,” Brown said.

Howell still could return for his senior year, too, but Brown and Carolina just aren’t planning on it.

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