There was no secret in August that North Carolina was looking for leadership as the season began.
When Sam Howell was named starting quarterback halfway through training camp, both Mack Brown and offensive coordinator, Phil Longo, explained that the move was, in part, to begin cultivating leadership at the position.
Not only has Howell delivered as a quiet, confident leader on the field, but the player he beat for the starting job, Jace Ruder, has emerged as one of the Tar Heels’ most enthusiastic voices on the sideline.
“He’s been on the sideline cheering people on and being a tremendous leader,” Coach Mack Brown said on Monday. “I'm really excited for the attitude that he's got.”
Ruder, a 6-3, 225-pound redshirt freshman, showed up for training camp with Fu Manchu moustache, wearing a headband during practices. His explanation for the look was a simple one: it was meant to give his teammates a lift.
“I figured, going into camp, you can’t have guys down,” Ruder said in August. “I figured the Fu Manchu might help with that.”
Ruder’s certainly having plenty of fun on the sidelines, offering encouragement and being among the first to jump into a celebration, but he’s providing more than just an emotional lift for his teammates as an extension of offensive coordinator Phil Longo and the rest of the staff.
“As soon as we make an adjustment they’re free to go, he leaves and goes and grabs the tight ends or the receivers or the running backs and he’s talking about the adjustments,” Longo said.
During the position battle in camp, Brown expressed just how impressed he was that Howell, Ruder and Cade Fortin were supporting one another off the field while being in the midst of a fierce competition daily in practice.
That’s only continued between Ruder and Howell since the season began.
“There’s dialogue between he and Sam all game,” Longo said. “He’s involved and knows every play call and kind of goes through the game mentally so if he gets called, he’s ready to roll."
Unprompted, Brown praised Ruder’s improvement as a passer during Monday’s press conference.
“He had his best practice morning,” Brown said. “I told him this morning, his practice — he can run without question — but he threw the ball better this morning than I've ever seen him throw, which was really good.”
Going into the season-opener, coaches alluded to the possibility that Ruder would make an appearance, as Longo pointed out that every week there will be a package for the backup, should Carolina choose to go that route.
So far, that hasn’t materialized, but it hasn’t stopped Ruder from showing up ready.
“A lot of that falls on Jace and the way he approaches it,” Longo said. “We’re very fortunate and the reason I say that is that if the time comes when we actually need him to win a game, he can go do that because he prepares all the time, he has the right attitude. He’s more about the team than he is about himself and he’s everything you want a quarterback to be.
“Sometimes, you can kind of fade and sit in the back and not be involved, and that’s not how he handles it. He’s prepared to be ready to go at just about anytime and that’s what you expect from your backup quarterback.”