After years of being a starter, Sam Howell is ’embracing’ new role in Washington

After years of being a starter, Howell 'embracing' new role originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington

When the Washington Commanders take the field in Week 1 against Jacksonville, rookie quarterback Sam Howell will find himself in an unusual position.

A fifth-round draft choice by Washington in April, Howell is expected to begin the season on the Commanders’ bench — a role the 21-year-old has not experienced in nearly a decade.

“Probably the last time [I wasn’t the starter] was I played in an All-Star game when I was in seventh grade. The coach’s son played quarterback. I actually played defensive end. So that’s probably the only time in my life I haven’t been the starting quarterback,” Howell said during minicamp on June 15.

Two years after that All-Star game, Howell was named the starting quarterback at Sun Valley High School in North Carolina as a true freshman. Howell went on to start all four years at Sun Valley, totaling 3,415 yards and 145 touchdown passes. He also added 3,621 yards and 60 scores on the ground and set the North Carolina state record for total yards with 17,036.

A consensus four-star recruit at the suburban Charlotte high school, Howell chose to play his college ball for the University of North Carolina. Howell never sat on the bench for the Tar Heels, either. He would start all 13 games for Carolina as a freshman and never relinquished his QB1 duties during his three years in Chapel Hill. Howell left UNC with over two dozen school records, including career passing touchdowns (92) and passing yards (10,283).

As successful as the past seven years have been for Howell, the 21-year-old enters a completely different role in Washington. Once projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 Draft, Howell fell all the way to the fifth round. Yes, the Commanders brass openly admitted they were surprised the QB slipped that much in the draft but made it clear selecting Howell was largely for developmental purposes.

“Obviously, has a very good arm,” offensive coordinator Scott Turner said on June 1. “We didn’t think we’d be able to get him where we did, but we’re happy we did.”

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Howell is expected to be the team’s third-string QB when the season starts, firmly behind offseason acquisition Carson Wentz and 2021 Commanders starter Taylor Heinicke. Although Howell did flash at times during the offseason program, his growing pains were evident as well. His position on the depth chart is pretty clear — and he’s OK with that, for now.

“For me, I’m just going to embrace my role,” Howell said. “Do everything I can to just try and get better each and every day. And when my name is called, I’ll be ready.”

For some teams, hostility can be found in the quarterback room — especially clubs where there is a true competition for the starting job. That’s not the case in Washington, though, as Wentz, Heinicke and Howell have all repeatedly praised one another throughout the offseason program.

“Both [Wentz and Howell] can sling it,” Heinicke said on June 15. “It’s been really fun to watch them throw the ball. I feel like we’re all out there getting each other better. It’s a fun quarterback room.”

The learning curve from college football to the NFL can be a big one for some, especially quarterbacks. Howell leaned on both Wentz and Heinicke for advice throughout the spring and said it’s been “awesome” to work with both signal-callers.

“They’re both great guys. I’m just happy to be somewhere where there’s two really good quarterbacks in my room,” Howell said. “They’re helping me out a lot — they’ve given me a lot of good advice. They’re both really talented guys. I’m happy to be in the room with those guys and compete each and every day.”

During OTAs and minicamp, Howell seemed to be at his best during sessions that mimicked a two-minute drill. That up-tempo style of offense is similar to what he ran at North Carolina.

Playbook retention is something the rookie quarterback has made a major focus this offseason. Howell said he’s spent hours away from the facility learning the playbook, as Turner’s offense is much more complex than past systems he’s played in.

Turner has noticed.

“Sam is learning. He’s done a great job of just the playbook retention,” Turner said. “He came from a system where everything was no-huddle with the line signaling. He’s done a nice job getting in and out of the huddle [and] knowing what to do.”

Howell feels that he’s made good progress in that area, too.

“We were more strictly shotgun in college, more of an Air-Raid type system. Here, it’s more of a pro-style offense, a little bit more under center, more play-action stuff — some stuff I didn’t really do in college,” Howell said. “It’s stuff I have to get more comfortable with. I feel like I’m making good progress. I’m taking all the coaching really well.”

With his first NFL offseason under his belt, Howell feels he’s made solid strides. His coaches agree. Yet, Howell knows there’s a long way to go for him to become the passer he wants to be.

“I’m just trying to get more comfortable with all of it,” Howell said. “I feel like I’m making good progress, but still think there’s a lot for me to learn. I’m just trying to go out there and get better each and every day.”

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