When North Carolina coach Mack Brown first saw how his quarterbacks interacted with one another, he said he was confused.
Here was Jace Ruder, Sam Howell and Cade Fortin in the middle of a heated quarterback competition — one Brown and offensive coordinator Phil Longo say is neck-in-neck — congratulating each other after good plays. When one made a good throw, the others were giving him high fives, Brown said.
That’s just the relationship these quarterbacks have with each other.
But it was clear Tuesday after speaking with the quarterbacks for the first time this season, that their friendship won’t get in the way of their desire to become the team’s starter.
“That’s what I came here to do,” said Howell, a 6-1, 225-pound true freshman. “To be the starting quarterback.”
There’s good news and there’s bad news for Tar Heel fans as it pertains to UNC’s quarterback competition.
The good news is that the staff and players have faith in all three quarterbacks.
The bad news is there is a little more than two weeks left before UNC’s season opener against South Carolina, and none of the three quarterbacks has managed to separate himself from the others.
“To be honest with you, I would have hoped maybe we were starting to have a little bit of a pecking order,” Longo said Monday, “but they’re competing their tails off right now.”
Finding a quarterback soon will be crucial for the Tar Heels as they inch closer to their season opener.
The starter will need the most reps in practice. For the most part, over the past three weeks, Ruder, Howell and Fortin have all gotten equal reps with the exception of Saturday’s scrimmage.
Ruder did not play because of what Brown called a “lower-body injury.” Ruder said he was ready to go, but the coaching staff felt it was best he not risk further injury. Ruder returned to practice on Sunday and was a full go. He also practiced on Monday and Tuesday.
But deciding who will be the starter has been difficult for the coaching staff. All three quarterbacks are talented. But all three are also young and none has taken control.
Ruder and Fortin are redshirt freshman who did not play much last season.
Ruder, who is 6-3 and 225 pounds, played in one game against Georgia Tech and was 4 of 5 for 80 yards and a touchdown. He left the game early, though, after sustaining a shoulder injury.
Fortin, who is 6-3 and 220 pounds, played in four games in 2018, threw for 388 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He started in the season finale against N.C. State and almost led the Tar Heels to a win. But they lost in overtime to the Wolfpack 34-28.
Fortin said his experience last season helped him learn to be ready at all times.
“Always being prepared, and just taking it one step at a time, taking it one day at a time,” Fortin said. “Because not everything is going to happen over the course of one practice, or one day, and just trying to be consistent and be the best I can be every single day.”
Howell is a true freshman who was highly touted coming out of high school. But he hasn’t played any college football.
Howell admitted that adjusting to the speed of the college game was difficult for him in the spring. But he insists he’s gotten better in the summer.
“By the time South Carolina is here, I think I’ll be ready to play,” Howell said.
According to the coaching staff, Fortin is considered the best pure passer, Ruder is considered the best athlete, and Howell is a mix of both.
But Brown has said his staff still plans to start the player who shows leadership, takes care of the football and scores the most points.
Ruder thinks the battle will likely come down to the last minute.
“Every throw does have an impact on where we stand,” Ruder said, “and that makes us rise to the level of competition.”