North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell enters the 2021 season as an interesting prospect. Some in the media have projected him to be a high first-round pick, but some NFL advance scouts gave Howell a day three projection heading into the season. Howell has produced huge numbers for the Tar Heels in 2019 and 2020, and quarterbacks can rise so Howell is definitely a player to watch as a junior. Howell’s performance against Virginia Tech in the 2021 season opener gave support to the scouts view that Howell is not an early-round candidate as Howell struggled in this loss to the Hokies.
In the first half Howell threw a few nice passes showing some accuracy to hit slants in the intermediate level of the field. Howell threw the ball with precision into some tight windows showing a compact delivery. Midway through the first half Howell had a nice play using his legs to run for 14 on a third-and-10. On the negative side, Howell held onto the ball too long on a number of plays and that led to some sacks and throwaways that killed drives. Surprisingly, North Carolina was shutout in the first half.
Early in the third quarter Howell used his legs again to run for about 15 yards before absorbing a hard hit, but later on the drive Howell threw to the sideline to a blanketed receiver and the cornerback out wrestled the Tar Heels receiver for the ball. It wasn’t a horrible pass by Howell but resulted in his first interception of the year. Howell came back to throw a bubble screen behind the line of scrimmage that his receiver turned into a 37-yard touchdown.
Midway through the fourth quarter Howell had his second interception and once again it wasn’t a bad play on his part as a defensive tackle did a nice job of tipping the pass and the Hokies defenders were able to snatch the deflection. At the end of the fourth quarter with around 40 seconds remaining, Howell was being spun to the ground by a defensive tackle and he heaved the ball downfield in desperation and it was picked off. Howell finished completing 17-of-32 passes for 208 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions.
To rise up for his draft class, Howell will need to play a lot better in the weeks to come. He throws accurately in the short to intermediate part of the field, but Howell is not a dynamic dual-threat quarterback that is en vogue with NFL teams. Howell (6-0, 220) also does not have an elite arm with a cannon that makes dynamic throws based off of arm strength. For the NFL, Howell has more of a backup caliber skill set.
The top rated prospect on either team according to NFL team’s preseason watch list was Virginia Tech edge rusher Amare Barno and he had a big presence in helping to shutdown the previously prolific Tar Heels offense. In the first quarter Barno got started with a tackle in run defense on the perimeter for a loss of two yards. Later on he joined a teammate for another tackle for a loss. Just before halftime Barno raced to the flat to strip the ball from Howell as he scrambled to the outside. Luckily for Howell, the ball rolled out of bounds but it was Barno’s first sack and forced fumble of the season.
On the first play of the third quarter Barno was blocked, but as Howell rolled out to his left Barno ran away from the tackle to sack Howell in the flat. Barno continued to get some timely pressures including late in the fourth quarter when he almost had another sack after chasing down Howell in the flat.
This was a very good start to the 2021 season for Barno. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Barno is fast and athletic for a long edge rusher. He shows quickness off the edge, a burst to close, length to fight off blocks, solid vision, decision-making, and agility. Barno has the potential to rise into being a pick in the opening night of his draft class.