Tad Baucom was putting together his coaching staff in 2014 as the new coach at Sun Valley when he heard about a seventh-grade quarterback named Sam Howell.
Howell was the Sun Valley Middle School quarterback.
“When I first saw Sam play, he immediately stood out as a player who looked so much more physically stronger than his peers, and you could tell he was way above most of his competition,” said Baucom. “But he also had a knowledge of the game even at that age, that you don’t see often.”
Howell had greatly benefited from the tutelage of his father, Duke Howell, who was his Sun Valley Middle School coach. Duke Howell now is the varsity offensive coordinator.
The elder Howell played offensive and defensive line and wrestled at Sun Valley, before going on to wrestle at Appalachian State University.
Sam’s older brother, Will, a junior, is a starting linebacker for Sun Valley.
The family atmosphere on an already tight-knit Spartans team made Howell’s transition to high school easier. But the freshman quarterback also faces the pressure of meeting expectations.
“I look at it as motivation because people were already expecting a lot out of me before I got to Sun Valley,” Sam Howell said. “I want to live to those expectations and be even better. I like the challenge of trying to be the player everyone thought I could be.”
Howell has not disappointed. The freshman has passed for a Union County-best 1,641 yards with 16 touchdowns, and four touchdowns runs.
However, Howell and Sun Valley (3-3 overall going into Piedmont game) have had their ups and downs (with nine interceptions). And he’s had some eye-opening performances. He averages 274 yards passing and three touchdowns per game.
In only his second career start, Howell passed for 391 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Spartans to a 63-38 win over North Stanly.
The 6-foot, 200-pounder, who just turned 15 on Sept. 16, also has two game-winning touchdowns passes in the last minute – against Porter Ridge and Forest Hills.
In the Porter Ridge game on Sept. 11, Howell found sophomore Anthony Marple, on a 34-yard touchdown pass with 35 seconds left. Just two weeks later at Forest Hills, Howell helped turn a 22-14 deficit with five minutes to play into a 26-22 Sun Valley victory, again finding Marple for the game-winning score.
“In both games, we didn’t call for him to throw a touchdown pass on those plays, we were just trying to get a first down,” Baucom said. “But he scrambles, everything changes, and our receivers know what to do. Sam and Anthony just made two great plays to win games.”
Howell relishes the nail-biting endings.
“I’d rather win by 20 points, but I love those tight games, where you have to get a score to win, because as the quarterback you know everybody is relying on you to make plays,” Howell said. “But for this team, it’s also a great feeling knowing I have great receivers out there and I just have to get them the ball.”
The Sun Valley offense (which averages 32 points per game) is loaded with weapons. There are running backs, Fabrice Funderbuke (537 yards rushing) and Ishod Finger (425 yards rushing). Then there are receivers like P.J. Lotharp (31 catches for 449 yards and a touchdown), Marple (22 catches for 419 yards and four touchdowns) and Jeremiah Miller (23 catches for 506 yards and six touchdowns).
Howell also has benefited from a strong offensive line, including senior center, Jason Patterson, junior guard, Mason Lowder, sophomore guard, Garrett Mowers, and senior tackles, Michael Head and Austin Matthews, and sophomore tight end, Luke Burnette.
Baucom says it doesn’t hurt that “Sam goes home with the offensive coordinator every night.”
“We talk about plays and watch film together all of the time, even at the dinner table,” Howell said. “My mom (Amy Howell) definitely gets tired of it sometimes, but I think she’s pretty used to it by now.”
Howell says he has a lot of goals.
“Having success early in my career is great, but I know I can be so much better, so I feel like I have to work even harder now,” said Howell.
Baucom also says Howell has a long way to go.
“I’ve been blessed to coach two NFL players (Richard Huntley and Terry Witherspoon, both at Monroe High) and dozens of college players and even a Navy Seal,” Baucom said. “You can already see that same trait in Sam, you can see that same focus in him. Our job is to keep helping him grow as a player.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: email@example.com.