Did Mack Brown just name UNC football’s starting quarterback?

For now, UNC freshman Sam Howell is in the driver’s seat for the starting quarterback spot.

The Tar Heels had a three-way battle for the starting job heading into the season-opener against South Carolina and it appears Howell, the true freshman from Monroe, has the edge over redshirt freshmen Cade Fortin and Jace Ruder.

At his press conference on Sunday, UNC coach Mack Brown announced Howell will be working with the “Blue” team, the first-team offense, while Fortin and Ruder will split reps with the white team. Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo made the decision Saturday night and Longo informed the quarterbacks Sunday morning in their team meeting.

“The guys are in a tough spot because all three of them are good enough and all three of them are working hard enough,” Brown said. “But Sam Howell will now start taking the snaps with the Blue team, our first team.”

Brown added the team will need all three quarterbacks to be successful, and Fortin and Ruder will alternate some with the Blue team, but for now Howell has been more consistent between the three.

Brown continued to point out that Fortin and Ruder have had minor injuries during camp while Howell has remained healthy.

“We’ve got the quarterback situation, at least for now, where we know who will be working with each group,” Brown added.

Howell (6-1, 225 pounds) was the prize recruit of the class of 2019, choosing UNC after decommitting from Florida State. At Sun Valley High School, Howell passed for 3,240 yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior. He also rushed for 1,392 yards and 17 touchdowns. He left Sun Valley with 17,036 total yards, a North Carolina state record, and 205 total touchdowns.

Howell enrolled in January and went through spring practice with UNC, battling Fortin and Ruder along the way. Fortin and Ruder saw the field last season for the Tar Heels, but not much. Ruder (6-3, 225) played in one game, against Georgia Tech, and was 4 of 5 for 80 yards and a touchdown. He left that game early with a shoulder injury.

Fortin (6-3, 220) played in four games, passing for 388 yards with one touchdown and an interception. He started the season finale against NC State and almost pulled off the win. The Wolfpack edged the Tar Heels, 34-28 in overtime.

Howell, a four-star prospect, arrived in Chapel Hill with much fanfare and made it clear that he was here with one goal in mind, to win the job.

“That’s what I came here to do,” Howell told the media last week. “To be the starting quarterback.”

He’ll get his chance on Aug. 31, when the Tar Heels take on South Carolina at Bank of American Stadium in Charlotte, 27 miles away from Howell’s hometown.

During a press availability last week Longo said he wished they had a pecking order, but that the three were “competing their tails off right now.”

Since then, Howell has shown enough to take control of the reins. Fortin and Ruder will split the White team reps 50-50, Brown said.

Along with Longo and the other coaches, Brown said he has about 15 sets of eyes evaluating each player, including the quarterbacks, watching every play, every little thing the players do. They then go into a staff meeting for an hour and a half to break down who are the best players.

Ruder had a slight hamstring that affected his ability to run, one of the best things he does, Brown said, and Fortin had a sore arm. Howell is a consistent runner and passer. Brown said the team hasn’t gotten enough leadership yet on offense and he hopes putting Howell with the starters will help bring out more leadership qualities. That’s a tough spot for a true freshmen, but Brown doesn’t consider the early enrollees, a group that includes Howell, true freshmen anymore.

The veteran coach did want to add that this was not set in stone.

“That doesn’t mean if Sam plays awful tomorrow that he will stay there,” Brown said. “Everybody goes up and down every day. When you earn the right to be in that position you have to keep it.”

He continued: “We don’t have starters. It sounds funny and you all don’t like it, but the thing we’re trying to sell them on is when you’re in the game you’re a starter.”

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Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.