North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell took an interesting approach to film study at the end of his freshman year.
"Right when our season ended, the first thing I did was make sure I was sent all the LSU games from last season," Howell told SN on a conference call on April 8. "Joe Burrow did a really, really good job. He was so efficient. I watched every single one of his games three times."
Howell watched Burrow go to the Cincinnati Bengals as the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft last weekend. Even with two seasons left with the Tar Heels, Howell already is being pushed into that conversation in way-too-early 2022 NFL mock drafts.
Howell, however, is more focused on putting in the mental reps just to stay in that conversation as a sophomore. Howell enjoyed an impressive first year where he set a true freshman single-season record with 38 touchdown passes. He had three passing touchdowns or more in the Tar Heels' last five games and led a 55-13 blowout against Temple in the Military Bowl.
North Carolina enjoyed a winning season in Mack Brown's first year, and the Tar Heels are on the rise in the ACC heading into 2020. Howell is at the center of that resurgence, and the next-level attention that's going to come.
Does that mean Howell will be a first-round quarterback in two seasons?
The ACC has five first-rounders at the position since 2015 in Florida State's Jameis Winston (2015), North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky (2017), Clemson's Deshaun Watson (2017), Louisville's Lamar Jackson (2018) and Duke's Daniel Jones (2019). Clemson's Trevor Lawrence is the overwhelming favorite to be a top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft if he forgoes his senior season.
Howell's development will come into focus after that heading into 2022. In the present, he's dealing with the effects of quarantine from the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States. He's working with quarterback coach Anthony Boone — who played at Duke — and watching as much film as possible from home. North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo made a cut of Howell's mistakes from last season. He has also re-watched that several times.
"With the cutup of mistakes last season, mainly it's all mental," Howell said. "During this time, that's something that I really can focus on being in the house so much. I can really focus on every single mistake that I made last season."
Longo also added another wrinkle to the film study. He pitted North Carolina's offenses against NFL defenses to see how Howell would react in those situations. It's an exercise that will prepare the quarterback for the next level.
"I would say the main thing I learned is how much they change from snap to snap," Howell said. "In college you see a lot of repetitive coverages. Teams normally stick with what they do. In the NFL, teams do everything. They have every single coverage in their playbook. The speed of the game is different, and it's a lot more complex on the defensive side."
Howell also is working with strength and conditioning coach Bran Hess to improve his mobility. Howell wants to become more of a factor in the running game to be a true dual-threat. Howell is listed among the mid-range Heisman Trophy picks in 2020.
"In my opinion, it's selfish of me to go into a season with one goal of trying to win the Heisman Trophy," he said. "I'm just going in to do what I can to help us win games."
As for the next step and a potential first-round future, Howell falls back on Burrow's tape. Burrow enjoyed a record-setting season where he passed for 5,761 yards and 60 touchdowns in leading LSU to the College Football Playoff championship.
"The main thing with him is he doesn't make mistakes," Howell said. "He's not going to put his his team in a bad position and doesn't turn the ball over."
If Howell keeps doing the same for the next two seasons, then he will follow a similar path in 2022.