In the fall of 2014, his first season as head football coach at Sun Valley High, Tad Baucom often got up early on Saturday mornings to watch his future quarterback play eighth-grade games.
Having coached at nearby Central Academy High in Monroe, Baucom heard about this developing prodigy coming through the Union County middle school ranks. But having coached two players who made it to the NFL and nearly 100 who played in college in what’s now a 37-year career, he had to see for himself.
It didn’t take too many weekends to realize Sam Howell was exactly what people said he was: a once-in-a-generation talent.
“What I saw,” Baucom said, “was a man amongst boys. He had facial hair in the eighth grade. Could sling it 50 yards down the field. Had big hands and a big frame. He was hitting receivers in stride and playing centerfield (safety) on defense and picking balls off. Man, Sam was just different.”
Howell, who is 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, is much better since arriving at Sun Valley. In three seasons, he’s thrown for 10,175 yards and 109 touchdowns. Before his senior season begins this fall, Howell sits at No. 8 in N.C. High School Athletic Association history in career yardage, and is seventh in career touchdown passes.
He has 25 college scholarship offers, and that number seems to grow daily.
In the past two weeks, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh, North Carolina’s Larry Fedora, N.C. State’s Dave Doeren, Ohio State’s Urban Meyer, Penn State’s James Franklin, Virginia Tech’s Justin Fuente and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen have visited Sun Valley’s campus.
And that’s not including offensive coordinators from Florida, Georgia, Miami, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia who’ve been there. Friday, North Carolina sent its entire offensive staff to visit with Baucom and to see Howell in person.
Baucom said teaching class has been a challenge.
“Every two seconds my line rings, and (the secretary) says, ‘Coach Baucom, you have a visitor,’” he said. “She doesn’t always know who it is. So I ask her, ‘What’s the emblem look like?’ She said, ‘It’s like a crocodile, with teeth.’ I say, ‘Is it blue and kind of orangey?’ We have a little fun with it. I really am enjoying the experience. People told me to get ready. They said it would be crazy in January.”
In a state that’s fast becoming known for turning out top college football prospects, Howell’s star is rising in the recruiting world. He was a MaxPreps freshman and sophomore All-American, but he had his best season as a junior, when he threw for 3,372 yards and 36 touchdowns and ran for 1,594 yards and 24 more scores. He led Sun Valley to an 11-4 record and a berth in the N.C. state semifinals, the school’s best finish in the playoffs.
Today, 247Sports, a website that focuses on college recruiting, ranks Howell as the No. 4 overall recruit in North Carolina and the nation’s No. 1 pro-style quarterback prospect. At least one major recruiting service ranks him as a four-star (out of five) recruit.
Howell said he’s enjoyed the recruiting experience.
“It’s been pretty cool to be able to meet all these guys. They are some of the best (college) coaches ever,” said Howell, 17. “Knowing a coach wants me just motivates me more to get better. But it’s crazy how some of these schools just come out of nowhere. You can’t believe it sometimes.”
Another thing he finds difficult to believe is his own celebrity in Indian Trail, a suburban Union County town about 15 miles east of Charlotte. He’s often featured in the local paper and isn’t hard to find online. After the season ended in December, Baucom was scheduled to take his senior players to volunteer at a local elementary school. The seniors wanted Howell to come, too.
So the players arrive, help the kids from their cars in carpool and later visit some classes. As they walk into one classroom, some students recognize Howell. Several turn their computer screens around to reveal screen savers with the quarterback’s image.
“It caught him off guard,” Baucom said of Howell. “But the kids on our team are like, ‘Look Sam!’ They’re not mad or jealous. They like him. In our program, Sam and I fight over who eats last during team meals. He’s nudging me in the back after everyone else has gotten their food, and I’m like, ‘You go.’”
Baucom describes Howell as a quiet but respected leader, and that everyone around the team admires his competitiveness.
As a sophomore, for instance, Howell once found a receiver open in the back corner of the end zone. He also saw a charging defender closing in on his right throwing arm. Howell calmly switched the ball to his left hand and completed the 6-yard touchdown pass.
In the playoffs that season against Asheville Erwin, Howell left the game in the first half with an ankle injury so bad Baucom helped carry him off the field. Howell returned in the second half and led the Spartans to two scores and a lead in a game they eventually lost 50-43. The next morning, Howell’s ankle was severely swollen and discolored.
Last season against rival Porter Ridge, Howell suffered a nasty cut on his left hand that bled profusely. He refused to stop playing. The trainers wrapped it tightly, and Howell led a 42-41 win. The next morning, he received 13 stitches.
“He’s the best high school football player and competitor we faced last year,” said Charlotte Catholic coach Mike Brodowicz, whose Cougars won last season’s 3A state title. “He’s the best quarterback we have faced since playing against (Rock Hill Northwestern star) Mason Rudolph (a record-setter at Oklahoma State who’s expected to be an NFL draft pick this spring). He’s strong, athletic with a powerful arm. He runs like a fullback and he refuses to give up on any play.”
N.C. recruiting analyst Deana King says Howell is “probably going to be considered one of the all-time great players out of Union County.”
“I like his poise,” King said. “He stands tall in the pocket and if he doesn’t have an open guy, he’s not afraid to tuck it and run. He’s just a great athlete and a great dual-threat guy.”
Howell is headed for a busy spring and summer. He was invited to an Elite 11 regional camp that helps determine a collection of the nation’s best quarterbacks who participate in a nationally televised competition. He’s also been invited as quarterback for Cam Newton’s 7-on-7 travel team.
In addition, Howell said he plans to soon compile a list of “five to seven” colleges he’ll eventually choose from. He said he wants to commit to a college this spring and sign in December.
But where is he leaning?
“To be honest,” he said, “I don’t know. My dad (Duke) grew up liking Alabama, but I can’t see myself playing for them, I don’t think. There were two dream offers I wanted to get - Tennessee and Florida - and I actually got both of them, but that’s not going to impact my decision.
“I’m looking for a school with a good education and where I have good relationships with the coaches, and where they have head-coaching stability. Nowadays, coaches are going all over the place. It would be nice to stay closer to home for family purposes. But if I find a place farther away that’s a good fit, I’ll go.”
Howell said he once considered leaving Sun Valley, but he’s happy he chose to stay home.
“A lot of private schools and maybe some public schools, too, wanted me to leave,” he said. “But my dad played here. I’ve grown up here - and the love people have for me here - and the support system, I just didn’t want to leave. People would say you need to go to this school or that school to get attention or for college coaches to look at you. But I found out it really doesn’t matter.”
And now, Howell is focused on giving his hometown a senior season to remember.
“All of my goals are team goals,” he said. “I want to leave a legacy here, which is one of the reasons I stayed. I’m all for team and all for Sun Valley, and the biggest thing is to bring a state championship here. That’s something that’s not been done, and I want to be one of the guys who helps bring that here.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr
North Carolina QB Prospects
Sam Howell of Sun Valley is one of several high-level quarterback prospects from North Carolina. Here are a few others to watch:
Jayden Birchfield, Morganton Freedom, 6-2, 190, So.: Threw for 3,244 yards and 30 touchdowns last season.
Alex Flinn, Asheville Reynolds, 6-2, 205, Jr: Flinn led his team to the N.C. 3AA title game, throwing for 3,970 yards and 40 touchdowns
Garrett Shrader, Charlotte Christian, 6-6, 200, Jr: Holds offers from schools such as Alabama, Louisville and Tennessee. CISAA Player of the Year.
Nigel Summerville, Vance, 6-1, 195, Jr: Completed 165-of-299 passes for 2,981 yards and 30 touchdowns. Princeton offer. Has interest from Appalachian State, Charlotte, Duke, Louisville, Wake Forest, West Virginia, others.
Blake Walston, Wilmington New Hanover, 6-4, 170, Jr.: Threw for 4,340 yards and 39 touchdowns last season for N.C. 3AA state champion. Led N.C. in passing yards.