Outside of a horrid two-year stretch from 2017-18, the North Carolina football team has seen its fair share of strong quarterback play.
When I was enrolled at UNC, the Tar Heels transitioned from fan-favorite Marquise Williams to Mitchell Trubisky, who has a solid college career and eventually went No. 2 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. And in 2019, a true freshman quarterback named Sam Howell came in and led the program to a 21-17 record over three seasons while setting numerous program records along the way.
As well as Trubisky and Howell played at UNC, they both lacked some desirable traits that have caused their professional careers to go somewhat awry. Just this week,Trubisky was recently benched by the Steelers in favor of rookie Kenny Pickett. Howell, meanwhile, slipped to the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft and is currently sitting on the bench for Washington behind Carson Wentz.
But UNC’s new quarterback, redshirt freshman Drake Maye, looks ready to buck that trend. While he has only started five collegiate games, he’s off to one of the best starts of any quarterback in the country — and his style of play already has pro scouts drooling over him.
So far in 2022, Maye has completed 69.7% of his passes for 1,594 yards, 19 touchdowns and just one interception, adding another 255 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
Maye is tied for the NCAA Division-I lead in touchdown passes and is coming off a five-touchdown performance Saturday against Virginia Tech in a game UNC won by a score of 41-10.
Maye was named ACC quarterback and freshman of the week for his performance, but there are likely bigger goals in mind for the redshirt freshman. Chief among them, beyond his college career, is preparing himself for the professional level.
One thing Maye has going for him already is his quick decision-making. After taking the snap, Maye is lightning quick going through his reads, and he’s not afraid to take the open check-down or scramble for yards if the situation calls for it.
One of the biggest gripes with Howell when he left UNC was his tendency to hold onto the ball too long while waiting for things to develop downfield. Howell was sacked 48 times in 13 games in 2021, but Maye has only been sacked nine times in five games this season.
Maye has already received praise from some big names in college football. On College Gameday on Saturday, analyst Rece Davis at one point said that UNC “probably has the best quarterback in the ACC.”
During Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech, The Athletic NFL draft expert Dane Brugler said on Twitter that, from afar, it “looks like Justin Herbert plays for UNC.”
Herbert, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft out of Oregon, is one of the top young quarterbacks at the professional level. Maye has a similar frame to Herbert (6-foot-6, 236 pounds) at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, and his ability to make plays outside of the pocket is also very similar to the former NFL Rookie of the Year.
The only hesitancy I still have about Maye’s play, which has admittedly been fantastic, is the strength of the opponents he’s played so far. Two of UNC’s five games so far this season have come against Florida A&M and Georgia State. Of their other three opponents, the team with the best pass defense was Appalachian State, who is 42nd in the country in pass defense, allowing 202.2 yards per game.
The rest of the season should offer some clearer insights into Maye’s abilities against tougher competition. After traveling to Miami this weekend, UNC will play four of its final six games against teams over .500, including a three-game stretch to end the year that features matchups at No. 15 Wake Forest and at home vs. No. 14 N.C. State.
If Maye continues to play well down the stretch, he could be considered one of the top returning players in all of college football in 2023. And because he has already redshirted a season, Maye will be eligible to enter the NFL Draft following his sophomore season.
Right now, the 2024-eligible quarterback with the most professional buzz is Southern California’s Caleb Williams, who transferred from Oklahoma over the offseason and has the Trojans currently ranked No. 6 in the country with an undefeated 5-0 record.
Maye could put himself in the same conversation with Williams with another strong season in 2023. And if he manages to improve on his play, he could be in the conversation for No. 1 overall. If that ends up happening, he would be the first UNC player ever taken No. 1 overall. Trubisky, defensive end Julius Peppers (2002) and linebacker Lawrence Taylor (1982) each went No. 2 in their respective drafts.
Sports Editor Jeremy Vernon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jbo_vernon.