MONROE, N.C. --- Sam Howell figures to be one of the top in-state quarterbacks for the 2019 class. Thus, it's unsurprising that North Carolina is among the schools to express significant interest in the 6-foot-2, 205-pound passer from Sun Valley High.
"He doesn't complain -- he's just a competitor and he wants to win," said Sun Valley offensive coordinator Duke Howell, who is also Sam's father. "He's a football player first; he just happens to play quarterback.
"He really is a dual threat. As a freshman, we really didn't run him as much as we could have. This [past] year, we were limited in depth behind him, but our plan was to run him more once we got into conference [play]. But then he had an ankle injury in the opener. The last playoff guy, we had to run him, and he threw for 300 [yards] and ran for 150."
When Sam was in middle school, the Sun Valley coaches began developing its current offense with him in mind. Thus, when he became a freshman, he immediately was thrown into the starting quarterback position. From that point forward, everything the offense has done and will do runs through Sam.
"He had a lot on his shoulders for a sophomore," Coach Howell said. "We call a protection and -- even at the age that he's at now -- he has to check our protections. If he doesn't like our protection or the defense gives him a different look, he's going to have to check out of that protection. Going into games, if he gets a certain coverage or a match-up he has the freedom to check out of a run and go to a pass. And then we run a lot of RPOs [run-pass options], so he has a pre-snap decision and post snap decision."
The season prior to Sam's arrival, Sun Valley's offense averaged 31 points a game. That improved his freshman year to 34.5 points per game. The incline continued this past season with the offense averaging 40.5 points a game.
Individually, Sam threw for 3,586 yards with a 35-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio as a freshman. His yardage dropped to 3,217 yards this past season, but his accuracy improved. He completed over 61-percent of his passes in 2016, while improving his TD-to-INT ratio to 38-7.
Sam was also more of a running threat this past season. After rushing for 191 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman, he ran for 444 yards and a dozen scores as a sophomore.
While the production was certainly important, Sam's gamer mentality is what his coaches appreciate most. His dogged play was never more on display than Sun Valley's final game of the 2016 season against Asheville (N.C.) Erwin. Down 42-29 late in the fourth quarter, Sam rolls his ankle and is forced to the sideline by trainers.
"They ended up re-tapping [the ankle]," Coach Howell said. "The quarterback coach even told [Sam], 'Wrap it up, that's it, we're done, games over.' [Sam] gets his helmet and goes back in and takes us on two 90-plus yard drives to take the lead with a 1:57 left."
Unfortunately, Erwin returned its final kickoff for a touchdown to seal a 50-43 victory and knock Sun Valley out of the playoffs..
Maryland has offered Sam his first, and so far only, scholarship. But, North Carolina has appeared on the verge of offering for the past year.
"Everything seemed to be headed towards camp last year and they would offer him," Coach Howell said. "And when he went to camp, they measured him at 5-11 and then his forty wasn't where they wanted it to be. Since then, Sam is a little over 6-1 and he's been working with a speed coach, so his forty is down. I guess we'll know more where the process is later this spring."
Similarly, Duke, NC State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and Wisconsin have all sent either their head coach, quarterback coach, and/or offensive coordinator to Sun Valley to watch Sam throw.
Particularly during his freshman year, Sam made countless visits to UNC -- from camps to games to junior days.
"When I was a freshman, I was very interested in North Carolina," Sam said. "It's an in-state school and everybody wants to play for their state. And then every time I went up there it felt like home."
Sam has since backed away from his strong feelings for UNC. Although he is looking to make a verbal commitment after this upcoming season, he lacks a list of favorite schools.
"I still like all the schools that are showing me the most attention: Virginia Tech, Maryland, South Carolina, North Carolina, NC State," Sam said.
Sam will determine his camp schedule this summer based off of the feedback he receives from coaches.
In addition to UNC, Sam has attended games at Clemson, Duke, Maryland, NC State, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest the past two years.
Sam's personal quarterback coach is former Duke passer Anthony Boone... In addition to football, Sam plays third base and pitches for Sun Valley's baseball team... Both of Sam's parents played sports at Appalachian State. His sister is a student at App State, and his brother is set to enroll at App State this coming fall... Sam wants to pursue a college degree in sports management and eventually become a coach, like his father.