Duke Howell knew what was happening, even if his son didn’t yet realize it last December.
It wasn’t long after Miami coach Mark Richt had pitched Sam Howell, then a senior wrapping up his final weeks at Sun Valley High School, that North Carolina coach Mack Brown arrived to sell him on helping lead his rebuild in Chapel Hill.
“As soon as Mack sat down and talked with Sam, it was a different approach,” Duke Howell said. “He let Sam answer his own questions and I knew when he met Coach Brown that it was a good possibility that’s where he was going to go to school — he just needed to get a guy in place.”
Only one problem — Howell was committed to Florida State and had a shot to start for the Seminoles as a true freshman as Coach Willie Taggart looked to revive an offense that had lost its way during a historically bad 2018 season.
Then, Walt Bell, who had built a close relationship with Sam as FSU’s offensive coordinator, was hired as the new head coach at Massachusetts on Dec. 3
“The end of his recruitment got a little bit crazy,” Duke Howell said.
That might be an understatement for the month that followed, with a decommitment from FSU, a commitment to Carolina and two all-star games, all while Duke battled pneumonia and had triple-bypass surgery in the days before Sam would move to Chapel Hill and begin his college football career.
It was just three days after he was officially hired that Brown made his way down to Monroe to speak with Howell, and it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.
“I didn’t have an offensive coordinator, so he sat there and kind of looked at me like, ‘What are you in here for? I don’t know you, you don’t have an offensive coordinator because you don’t have an offense, you don’t have an offensive staff … why do you think I’m interested?’,” Brown said. “He kind of said in a nice, polite way, ‘Go get you a staff, go get an offensive coordinator, tell me what you’re going to do on offense, then I’ll talk to you, but right now, I’ll just be watching.’”
Luckily for Brown, he hired an offensive coordinator in Phil Longo who had already been recruiting his prized quarterback recruit to Ole Miss. Howell liked Longo and his hybrid Air Raid scheme, but wasn’t interested in playing for a program facing NCAA sanctions nor did he want to be that far from home.
Put Longo and that offense two hours from home though?
“I knew he liked the offense, we had a little bit of relationship and the biggest negative I had coming from a different school was no longer there,” Longo said. “I was coming from the in-state school, the top in-state school, so that obviously was an advantage.”
So much of an advantage that when the Howells visited Chapel Hill the day after the Shrine Bowl, on Dec. 16, Duke knew that Sam had found his home.
“I knew that day, after he talked to him, he felt comfortable that was where was going to go,” Duke Howell said.
That Monday morning, Dec. 17, Howell called Taggart to inform him of his decision, then on Dec. 19, announced his decision in front of a crowd at Sun Valley.
There was no doubt that Duke’s health was weighing on his son at the time.
“I really wanted to be close to him, that way I could stay and kind of take care of him if he needs that,” Sam Howell said.
The elder Howell had known for a while he wasn’t in the best of health but he wanted to finish the job he and his son had set out on so long ago, those hours grinding on the field and breaking down film together finally ending on signing day.
“I knew I needed some work done, and honestly, I was trying to get through football season and get Sam signed and dropped off at school,” Duke Howell said. “I watched the Shrine Bowl — I talked my way out of the hospital — then two days after his signing, I went into the hospital and spent the rest of the year in there.”
Not for a second did Duke want Sam missing the All-American Bowl, telling him to get back to work while he stayed home and watched the game on television — something that was certainly on his mind as he completed 11 of 13 attempts for 167 yards and two touchdowns while running for another.
“He always wants me to worry about myself first, then him, which I really don’t do,” Sam Howell said. “I’m always worried about my family. He wants me to pursue my dreams and he wants that more than anything else.”
Work above talent
Before the recruiting rankings and stars and highlight films and rewriting the record books at Sun Valley, Howell’s pursuit began on Union County tee-ball fields, where he was moved up an age group because he was simply too dominant.
Everyone saw the big, athletic kid that forced all of the defenders to the outfield, but they didn’t see the work that Sam was putting in before sports even got serious.
“When he was in elementary school age, you go to the batting cage with him, you’re going to be there for hours,” Duke Howell said. “He spent a lot of time in high school doing what he was supposed to do, watching film.”
It didn’t take long for his trainer Anthony Boone, a former Duke quarterback who led the Blue Devils to the 2013 Coastal Division title, to see something special when they began working together after Howell’s freshman season.
“He’s a guy that’s strictly about his business, about his work,” Boone said. “He’s going to do everything you need him to do to be prepared, and he’s going to a little more.”
It wasn’t long before Howell was meeting up with Boone on Friday nights after games to break down that night’s game on film. Often, Duke was giving Sam the chance to call plays and draw up his own concepts.
“That’s kind of relationship they had and that’s the type of understanding and trust and knowledge that kid was given at a young age,” Boone said. “It’s going to be the same kind of trust he’s going to be given as a lot more mature, more seasoned, more understanding quarterback.”
"He works his ass off"
Howell might be more matured, seasoned and understanding since arriving in Chapel Hill, but nothing else has changed, having already earned the respect of his teammates through leading by example.
“He comes in and he works his ass off,” defensive tackle Aaron Crawford said. “He did that since he stepped on campus. I wasn’t really sure how he was going to react and mold with the team. When you’re a big-time and you make a big flip to us, sometimes you see guys who might be a little bit big-headed and things like that, but he came in and he put his head down and he worked and as soon as I saw that, he had my respect and he started to gain everyone else’s.”
Brown has dealt with some big-time quarterbacks in his career, from Major Applewhite and Chris Simms to Vince Young and Colt McCoy, and to him, none have risen above Howell in his preparation.
“He works so hard,” Brown said. “He’s in the office every day, he’s watching video by himself every day and I don’t know that I’ve seen a guy work harder than Sam Howell has just to get himself ready.”
There’s no doubt in Howell’s mind where that originates.
“Definitely my dad,” he said. “There were times my dad was working three jobs just so I could play baseball that summer or something. He’d wake up early in the morning and sometimes he’d work all through the night … he was willing to do anything for us.”
Setting the example
A longtime probation officer, Duke said he also ran his own landscaping business and picked up a part-time job at the airport when Sam was younger, but brushed off his son’s praise, instead crediting his wife, Amy, with instilling discipline in all three of the Howell children.
Wherever it comes from, it’s certainly made an impact on his teammates at Carolina.
“I think a lot of guys that have his pedigree coming in and his high ranking and stuff like that, they might get caught up in their rankings before they get here and after they get here and feel like they should have handouts or feel obligated to have a spot,” running back Michael Carter said. “I don’t think he feels like that all, and it really speaks volume to him and his character, him and his family; all he did is work.”
And that’s because that’s all Sam has ever known, even with his athletic gifts. Might have something to do with a piece of wisdom Duke shared with his son a long time ago.
“Once you get a certain age, and I told him, ‘Your athletic ability will kind of catch up; guys that aren’t working hard, there’s something that separates you when you get to this level,’” Duke Howell said.
Because of that work, he’s separated himself into a class of one — all-time — in becoming Carolina’s first true freshman to start a season-opening game.
“I’m really, really impressed with him being a true freshman, how committed he is to coming in and watching film, studying the opponent and learning the game,” Longo said. “He can draw up any run scheme against any front you can imagine and for a freshman to be able to do that stuff is pretty impressive.”
Boone, who plans to be at the game Saturday in neutral colors, is excited to see just how Howell performs on yet another big stage.
“He’s always been doubted — his speed, his size, everything — and as always, on the highest platform, he’s performed at the highest level,” Boone said. “You’re going to see him throw a lot of balls that most freshmen probably won’t throw. You’re going to be like, ‘Damn, this guy’s got a lot of poise and a lot of trust in his ability,’ because he’s got a lot of ability.”
And for the first time, Duke Howell is going to sit back and just enjoy what his boy can do with the ball in his hands.
“We do pretty good at times of turning off the coach-player, and I think when he went off to school, our conversations become a little more normal — not just football related — more father-son type stuff and I get to be his cheerleader and not his coach,” he said.
Sam has been the picture of calm this week, and Boone doesn’t expect that to change any time between now and the end of the game on Saturday.
“People are going to be surprised with just how poised he is and if things aren’t going good, how mellow he is and if things are going great, how mellow he still is,” Boone said.
The same can’t be said for his old offensive coordinator.
“A little nervous, to say the least,” he said. “I think he’s doing a lot better than I’m doing with it.”
Boone reminded him of those hours in the batting cages, the long trips to camp, the extra throwing sessions and his immersion into film.
“His dad just texted me and was like, ‘Hey man, I’m getting really nervous,’” Boone said. “I was like, ‘Shit man, he’s been doing this; he’s been preparing (for years).’”
This one won’t be a coach watching his former player; it’ll be a father watching his son in the same place they came to Carolina Panthers games, as Sam dreamed of one day making it on that field.
“I’m going to get a little bit of that nervousness for him,” Duke Howell said. “It’s going to be a really proud father-son moment and coach-player moment. He’s worked most of his life to get where he’s at and to see him to get to start for a school he dreamed of playing for, it’s going to be a special moment.”