Mack Brown didn’t exactly say he was still looking for a quarterback capable of coming in this summer and winning the starting job.

Then again, he didn’t exactly say he wasn’t.

His only specific comment, made just before North Carolina’s spring game 2 weeks ago, was that the departure of 3rd stringer Tad Hudson made it necessary for him to bring in another quarterback off the transfer portal.

He left it open as to whether the new addition would have an opportunity to join the already established competition between Max Johnson and Conner Harrell. But he added that it would be difficult given the headstart the 2 frontrunners have gained through spring practice.

“You just have to be honest and say the two guys are doing well, so you would have to come in and compete for the job,” Brown said. “It’s going to be hard because it’s hard to coach 3 quarterbacks in the fall when you’ve got a limited amount of time.”

Hard for someone coming in cold, maybe.

The learning curve isn’t nearly as steep for a quarterback already familiar with the offense and at least some of the personnel surrounding him.

Enter Jacolby Criswell.


The return of the Arkansas transfer, a former 4-star recruit who started his career in Chapel Hill, adds a new and intriguing wrinkle to the Tar Heels’ quarterback situation heading into fall camp.

At the very least, Criswell’s arrival should serve as a motivator that helps Johnson and Harrell maintain their sense of urgency through a long summer of individual workouts.

At best it gives Brown a valuable insurance policy in the event neither of the other quarterback candidates rise to the occasion by the Aug. 29 opener at Minnesota.

Criswell has started only 1 game in his college career, a 34-14 win against Wofford in place of an injured Sam Howell in 2021. He threw for 125 yards while adding 66 yards and a touchdown on the ground before giving way to Drake Maye in the 2nd half.

He lost the starting job to Maye the following season. But to take Brown at his word, he pushed the future 1st-round pick all the way to the final week of camp before settling into the backup role.

Things didn’t go much better for him in his home state of Arkansas last year. He appeared in only 4 games behind starter KJ Jefferson, completing 17-of-27 passes for 143 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Even though Jefferson also entered the portal, leaving the Razorbacks’ job open, Criswell apparently liked his chances back at UNC better with Maye now in the NFL as a member of the New England Patriots.

Johnson, as the most experienced member of the Tar Heels quarterback room, figured to have the inside track on the job after scoring 22 games in 4 college seasons. He’s completed 60.5% of his passes for 5,852 yards and 47 touchdowns at LSU and most recently, Texas A&M.

But after starting 5 games for the Aggies last season, the son of Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson was benched for the final 3 in favor of sophomore Jaylen Henderson. And he’s still in the process of getting comfortable with his new offense.

Harrell, meanwhile, is in his 3rd year in the program.

Although he handled himself well in his 1st career start, going 22-of-33 for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns through the air while gaining another 75 yards and a score on the ground against West Virginia after Maye opted out of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, he is still very much an unknown quantity.

Even though both finished strong with encouraging spring game performances, prompting Brown to proclaim that “we feel like both of them can win today,” the Hall of Fame coach continues to have concern over the quarterback position.

Hudson’s decision to transfer to Coastal Carolina, leaving true freshman Michael Merdinger as the only other quarterback on the roster, allowed Brown to go back onto the portal to see what else might be available.

“One of the things we’re saying (is) ‘we’re looking,’” Brown said. “So if you’re looking, call us.”

It’s not certain how many veteran free agents may have taken Brown up on his offer. But at least 1 of the voices on the other end of the line sounded familiar.

That was all the UNC coach needed to hear to decide how to fill the vacancy in his quarterback room. And just maybe turn the Tar Heels’ current 2-man competition for the starting position into a potential 3-man battle royale in the fall.