Sam Howell at full strength? UNC QB puts in rehab work ahead of rivalry game at NC State

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  • Sam Howell
    American football player
  • Hubert Davis
    American basketball player
  • Phil Longo
    American football coach
  • Mack Brown
    Football coach
Sam Howell checks with the North Carolina sideline during the Tar Heels’ loss in overtime at Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
Sam Howell checks with the North Carolina sideline during the Tar Heels’ loss in overtime at Pittsburgh two weeks ago.

CHAPEL HILL — Sam Howell’s status has been open to interpretation as Friday night’s regular-season finale at North Carolina State has approached, North Carolina’s star quarterback returning from an injury that became at least partially responsible for his absence last week.

While Tar Heels coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo have struck an all-systems-go tone this week, Howell has acknowledged that he has undergone daily treatment sessions and rehab work on the upper-body injury, after last week’s break from football.

“I had a lot of rest last week, along with treatment and rehab, so it’s a combination of all those things,” he said. “Really, I’m just trying to put as much time into it as possible. I’m putting multiple hours a day into treatment and rehab.”

Brown said Howell “looked really good” in practice at the beginning of the week, and Longo said “we’re back to work, he’s back to work, he’s good” of North Carolina’s all-time leader in total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns and total touchdowns. But as for how he’s feeling, Howell has indicated he might not be at full capacity.

“I’m getting there,” he said this week. “I feel like I’m getting better every single day, making progress every day. So just keep working at it, keep getting treatment, just keep challenging myself in that area, and kind of see where I get at the end of the week.”

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The Tar Heels (6-5 overall, 3-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) have believed Howell will be ready for Friday night’s rivalry clash with the 24th-ranked Wolfpack (8-3, 5-2) since Brown opened last week by announcing that Howell was dealing with the injury, and his availability would be uncertain for the team’s home finale against Wofford.

The junior Howell participated in Senior Day activities last weekend at Kenan Stadium, but didn’t play as backups Jacolby Criswell and Drake Maye handled the quarterbacking duties in North Carolina’s 34-14 defeat of Wofford. That ended Howell’s streak of 35 straight starts dating to the opening game of the 2019 season, when he took the reins as an 18-year-old true freshman.

Longo said he checked on Howell during the first quarter of last week’s game in Chapel Hill, to see how he might be processing not suiting up and missing a game for the first time in his college career.

“And he said, ‘It’s just weird, I’m not used to it,’ ” Longo said. “He’s started every game here for three years. He’s never even been in the sideline in street clothes. He’s never been on the sideline with no helmet around. He was there kind of like just a bystander, and he didn’t like it and it was uncomfortable, and I think he was frustrated that he couldn’t be out there running the offense. But he did put that aside and do all the right things with regards to helping the quarterbacks.

“He took the right approach. He’s extremely competitive, and I’m sure he looked out there on the field and said, ‘You know, I would’ve checked this or I would’ve done that.’ And so I know he’s hungry to get back out on the field this week. So hopefully it just serves to feed his desire to get back out there and compete like he always does.”

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, left, fights for yards as Pittsburgh defensive back Brandon Hill delivers a hit at Heinz Field.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell, left, fights for yards as Pittsburgh defensive back Brandon Hill delivers a hit at Heinz Field.

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Howell is 69 yards shy of becoming the eighth quarterback in ACC history to reach the 10,000 passing yards threshold. When kickoff arrives Friday night at N.C. State, with the Wolfpack still in the hunt for the league’s Atlantic Division title, 14 days will have passed since Howell played in the Tar Heels’ overtime loss at Pittsburgh.

He ran 17 times during that game and Pitt also dropped him for five sacks, the night becoming typical of the punishment Howell has endured this season, whether carrying on his 152 rushing attempts (15.2 per game) or being dropped 39 times for sacks by opposing defenses.

“Sam’s tough, he’s a competitor, and he would want to play in this game,” Brown said, referring to North Carolina’s trip to nearby Raleigh. “Because he knows how important it is to his team, his university and this state. So he’ll be excited about Friday night.”

Howell has fashioned a 2-0 record against N.C. State. He threw for 401 yards and three touchdowns during North Carolina’s 41-10 blowout victory in November 2019, the Tar Heels’ last visit to Carter-Finley Stadium. Last season, he passed for 252 yards and accounted for two touchdowns as North Carolina rolled past the Wolfpack 48-21 in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell throws against Pittsburgh as Tar Heels running back Ty Chandler, right, looks to make a block.
North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell throws against Pittsburgh as Tar Heels running back Ty Chandler, right, looks to make a block.

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Howell ranks third in the ACC in total offense (343.1 yards per game) this season. Last month, he became the second-fastest ACC player to compile 10,000 yards of total offense. His 33 career games at that point tied him with former Clemson star Deshaun Watson, and trailed only former Louisville sensation Lamar Jackson (31 career games).

The Tar Heels have been heavily reliant on Howell, and they figure to need him at his best Friday night. N.C. State’s defense rates among the bowl subdivision leaders in scoring defense (No. 13 nationally), rushing defense (No. 17) and total defense (No. 17). The Wolfpack regularly gets off the field on third downs, ranking sixth nationally in third-down conversion defense.

“This is a big game for us,” Howell said. “It means a lot to me just growing up in North Carolina. I know how much this game means to this school, to this program, to our fans, and really to us as players, really a lot of bragging rights going into this thing, and it’s definitely a game that we see as a must-win.

“So we’re excited. It’s a great challenge for us. They’re doing a really good job on both sides of the ball, but specifically on defense they’re doing a really good job. They have one of the best defenses in the country, so it’s going to be a great challenge for us offensively. We’re going to have to have a really good week of practice, and we’ll have a great plan. It’s just a matter of us going out there and executing, but we’re super excited for this one.”

KICKOFF

Who: North Carolina (6-5, 3-4) at No. 24 N.C. State (8-3, 5-2)

When: 7 p.m. Friday (ESPN)

Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh

Series: North Carolina leads 68-36-6 and has won the last two meetings. The road team has won six of the last eight games in this series.

Adam Smith is a sports reporter for the Burlington Times-News and USA TODAY Network. You can reach him by email at asmith@thetimesnews.com or @adam_smithTN on Twitter.

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This article originally appeared on Times-News: UNC football: Sam Howell puts in rehab work for game at rival NC State

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